There’s noth­ing new about fear of the new

The Timaru Herald - - CATALYST - BOB BROCKIE


Rats and mice are fright­ened of new things. They prob­a­bly evolved this strat­egy to foil peo­ple who de­vise new kinds of baits and traps. Fear of the new is known as ‘‘neo­pho­bia’’ and hap­pens with peo­ple as well as an­i­mals. Peo­ple give many nov­el­ties a wide berth, their neo­pho­bia some­times run­ning for gen­er­a­tions.

When cheap books be­came read­ily avail­able in the 1700s, Bri­tain’s neo­pho­bic Reverend Vices­imus Knox warned ‘‘Few stu­dents will study Homer or Vir­gil when they can read Tom Jones or a thou­sand in­fe­rior or more danger­ous nov­els’’.

In the 1800s many prom­i­nent peo­ple were se­ri­ously anx­ious about young peo­ple read­ing too much. Goethe’s best-sell­ing novel The Sor­rows of Young Werther was blamed for a spate of Ger­man sui­cides. Through­out Europe ex­ces­sive read­ing was called read­ing ad­dic­tion, read­ing rage, read­ing fever, and read­ing ma­nia, peo­ple fear­ing that it led to dis­so­lute liv­ing and de­prav­ity.

When rail­way coaches first ran in Bri­tain, trav­ellers feared the worst. It was widely thought that the incredible speeds of 30 miles per hour (48kmh) would kill peo­ple by melt­ing them.

When tele­phones were in­vented, many el­derly folk were fright­ened to touch them for fear of get­ting elec­tric shocks. Swedish preach­ers taught the tele­phone was an in­stru­ment of the devil and phone lines were con­duits for evil spir­its.

Be­fore pas­teuri­sa­tion was in­vented, many peo­ple caught bovine tu­ber­cu­lo­sis by drink­ing in­fected milk. About 1900, Amer­i­cans were quick to pas­teurise their milk on a na­tional scale but Brits would have none of it. They claimed that process ru­ined the taste and nu­tri­tional value of the milk.

Not un­til the 1920s did Brits change their minds when they saw tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and child mor­tal­ity in Amer­ica plunge dra­mat­i­cally. The Brits re­luc­tantly fol­lowed suit.

In 1916, Char­lie Chap­lin said ‘‘Cin­ema is no more than a fad. It’s just canned drama. What au­di­ences re­ally want to see is flesh and blood on the stage’’.

In the 40s and 50s, many au­thor­i­ties trig­gered a moral panic about comic books as they were sup­posed to cause eye­strain, pro­moted bad taste, il­lit­er­acy, and de­prav­ity.

Ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing was de­monised from the start, the pub­lic fear­ing its ef­fects on health, the en­vi­ron­ment, and su­per­weeds over-run­ning farm crops. The para­noid New Zealand pub­lic still fears ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing, de­spite its wide use and never harm­ing any­body or any­thing for 40 years.

Ro­bots and nan­otech­nol­ogy put the wind up peo­ple and there are fears the new ge­netic tech­nique of CRISPR might pro­duce cloned ba­bies, su­per ath­letes, su­per sol­diers, and cy­borgs with a li­cence to kill.

Many fear that text mes­sag­ing ru­ins young peo­ple’s grasp of English but kids have al­ways used their own slang, ab­bre­vi­a­tions and acronyms, to the despair of the older gen­er­a­tion.

And don’t for­get video games. They make boys fat, ruin their so­cial skills, and pro­vide train­ing man­u­als for mass mur­der­ers! But how is it that young women also play these games in near equal num­bers and don’t be­come crazed killers? Neo­pho­bia is still with us.

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