On panic

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. Panic is often offered up as an explanation for rash action, but is it always a legitimate excuse? The answer to that question boils down to a determination as to whether or not a person could reasonably be expected to have been aware of their panic and, in turn, acted to control it. And, when it comes to widespread moral panic, the difference between good and bad leaders is often best defined by their approach to such problems.

On panic

By: Gareth van Onselen

27 August 2012

How would one distinguish panic from fear? It is an interesting question, as the former usually precedes the latter – one panics because one is fearful. In turn, panic generally suggests action; fear, paralysis. And, importantly, it implies some urgency: panic injects immediacy into decision making and that effects one’s judgement and ability to reason.

So a panicked decision is usually an instinctual one and at its heart often you will find self preservation.

It takes great restraint to recognise when one is in a state of panic and waylay any response to its cause. Even then, circumstance might not afford such a luxury; although, in retrospect, it can be surprising how often that possibility existed at the time and, likewise, how often one was blinded to it in the moment.

Panic can be more pervasive than mere personal dread; a society at large might be affected. Without the necessary intensity that defines the individual experience, nevertheless some collective fear heightens emotion and consolidates discontent behind it. The sense is created and fuelled that a problem is insurmountable, its effects inescapable and its consequences detrimental.

Such widespread moral panic acts like a filter, through which every current affair passes, to emerge redefined as further evidence of decline. As with the individual, in such a state a society too will lose the ability properly to reason. Collective action becomes unstable, irrational and extreme, increasing the likelihood that others will respond in turn, in panicked fashion themselves.

To rise above the hysteria takes a special calming influence. One must quell not just the underlying fear but the exigencies of fear; amongst them, that charged atmosphere of urgency, in which the inconsequential is so easily escalated to the essential. Good leaders are able to do this – to recognise moral panics and to act, that fear might be calmed. Bad leaders cannot do this. And demagaogues actively refuse. Instead, their own addiction to popular sentiment inevitably sees them simply fuel the problem.

Is panic a justifiable excuse for a bad decision? There is no generic answer to that question, but any panic must itself be justifiable before it is worth considering.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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