Tragedy seldom stands alone. Shocking news, such as the allegations of mass unmarked graves on the sites of former Native residential schools, is not only horrific in itself, but is soon made a symbol of broader, ongoing horror. “The shootings in Atlanta were horrible, but they didn’t come to me as a surprise,” wrote journalist Marina Wang in an essay for CBC news, referencing a 2021 mass slaying in the US, where six victims were Asian women. “Racism against people of East Asian descent has been persistent for as long as we have lived on this continent, and Sinophobic rhetoric has only served as an irritant in a longstanding chronic illness.” Indeed, such arguments exemplify an established line of thought, and it’s instructive to consider how it has previously played out, and what we have and haven’t learned afterwards.
From the late 1970s and throughout the following decades, for example, North American parents and their children were made increasingly alert to “stranger danger,” a mysterious but ever-present specter of abduction, rape, and murder stalking playgrounds and schoolyards everywhere. Stranger danger differed from the usual lessons of traffic or water safety, insofar as the perceived threat lay not in impersonal accidents or carelessness, but in the criminal intentions of anonymous adults. The fear was not without justification, to be sure: peaking rates of violent crime during the baby boom’s young adulthood (the age most marked by antisocial behavior), as well as high-profile cases of juveniles kidnapped, killed, and sexually assaulted by predators unknown to them, including notorious serial murderers like Canada’s Clifford Olson and John Wayne Gacy in the US, were all too real. The 1981 death of six-year-old Adam Walsh at the hands of a Florida drifter led to his father John Walsh’s prominent activism on behalf of missing children and eventually Walsh’s popular television series, America’s Most Wanted, which highlighted unsolved crimes and solicited phone-in tips from viewers. Self-defence instructions in grade school curricula, and informational portraits of lost youngsters on retailed milk cartons, were further manifestations of the trend.
Yet the stranger danger anxiety has since been subject to critical evaluation, and the conclusions may also apply to our current alarms over racism and discrimination. Like today’s #Me Too and BLM messages, the relentless focus on kids’ potential exposure to homicidal pedophiles stoked public unease over mercifully rare and statistically marginal events; just when infant mortality and childhood diseases were all but eliminated, they were replaced in parents’ minds by the hazard of molesters and monsters around every corner. “[C]hild safety crusaders claimed that as many as 50,000 American children fell victim to stranger abductions annually, though the actual figure was (and remains) somewhere between one hundred and three hundred,” noted Paul M. Renfro in his 2020 book Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State. Likewise, as society becomes more pluralistic and more integrated than ever before – in schools, in workplaces, in neighborhoods, in governments, in mass entertainment, and within families – we are constantly told of a white supremacist, misogynistic, or homophobic hatred fundamental to our social fabric. “The reality is our Canada is a place of racism, of violence, of genocide of Indigenous people,” asserted Jagmeet Singh, leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, in the wake of the unmarked grave stories. In an age when most time is screen time, no idea is relayed to more people, more often, and with more smug certainty, than the modern stranger danger of bigotry.
Other models for the hysteria might include the anti-Communist paranoia of the 1940s and 1950s, the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s, and even the post-9/11 War on Terror. In each case, a legitimate phenomenon (there really were Communists, creepy occult sects, and militant Islamists) was amplified by media exposure and political opportunism into a more immediate menace than hard evidence by itself could demonstrate. As with the stranger danger, too, tabloid TV and publicity-seeking “experts” conflated random actions of lone individuals into orchestrated undergrounds of Soviet agents, devil-worshipping day cares, or al-Qaeda cells, paralleling the current emphasis on systemic racism or rape culture, rather than merely single racists or rapists. Frequently an epidemic metaphor is used to describe the problems, implying that isolated episodes are actually disparate outbreaks of the same sweeping contagion, somehow transmitted from the infected guilty to the unsanitized innocent. “We are living in a racism pandemic,” declared Sandra L. Shullman, president of the American Psychological Association, in May 2020. Such general accusations also have the advantage of being immune to legal contention: call one person a white supremacist, a sexist, a homophobe – or a murderer – and you’ve got a lawsuit, but say the same of an entire population and you’ve got a campaign plank, or a publishing deal, or tenure.
Aside from distorted representations of genuine but limited perils, stranger danger shares with contemporary causes a perverse vilification of bystanders. Just as no one would defend the instincts of a Clifford Olson or a John Wayne Gacy, there are no pro-Islamophobia or pro-residential school lobbies, so the easiest targets of activist outrage are not those who perpetrate the offenses but anyone insufficiently offended by them. Several commentators have noted the religiosity of otherwise secular anti-racists, for whom the greatest enemies are the disbelievers and the heretics – dissidents who doubt the urgency of the campaign or who don’t speak the language of allyship and original sin – rather than any obvious avowed racists. Much of the left-right social divide of the present, on reflection, isn’t between people in favor of racism and those opposed, but between differing views on the prevalence, not the evil, of racism itself. Similarly, the most devoted apostles of stranger danger uncritically accepted testimonies of recovered memory and Satanic Ritual Abuse (faddish psychotherapies now thoroughly discredited) but shamed perfectly decent, law-abiding skeptics. As late as 2014, two American mothers were arrested for letting their children play or wander outside unaccompanied, in contravention of the widespread abductors-are-everywhere doctrine. It wasn’t that they had harmed anyone, but that they didn’t accept the official odds that harm might occur.
Thus both stranger danger and the tenets of diversity promote a sort of moral vigilantism: they appeal to the exercise of mob justice, whether via online shaming or America’s Most Wanted, over the mechanisms of law enforcement, due process, or just rational debate. To be clear, prejudice and cruelty do exist, historically and right now. The same can be said, sadly, about terrible crimes committed against children. Yet a public discourse that exaggerates these facts into a politics of collective vulnerability and collective blame – whether to score rhetorical points, to secure self-made careers, or to titillate impressionable audiences – only yields the net effect of making already bad things appear far, far worse than they really are.