DES COLOHAN: “Crisis” becoming trivialized

With overuse of word, our Pavlovian response will predictably become more blunted

Published on January 10, 2017

The word ‘crisis’ in this day and age smacks of triviality, given how over-used it has become on the radio, on television, in print and on social media.

Part of the reason for this is that the creation of a “pseudo-crisis” has become a well-worn technique for governance and of social control intended to generate widespread public credence while diverting attention from the real issue.

Scarcely a day passes by without someone insisting that we pay more attention to the looming crisis in global warming, the imploding housing market bubble, the threat of ISIS to world peace, an impending Ebola and/or Zika virus pandemic, the skyrocketing fentanyl death rate or the intolerable stress on our waste-treatment facilities of seniors’ increasing propensity to constipation.

The vacuous nature of much of our media is well suited to the deliberate creation of ‘pseudo-catastrophes’ through the fabrication of hysteria, trumped-up excitement and drama; inevitably followed by reassurance from carefully selected, allegedly expert, talking heads.

The game plan in the trivialization of ‘crisis’ is to present the issue as an ‘event,’ a specific happening that needs to be managed, first by the exponents, who are depicted coping with the event and/or discussing their plans for dealing with it, and, secondarily, by the presentation itself which creates a framework, reduces its ambit to "highlights," and then attempts to reassure the newly-anxious audience.

One of the oldest definitions of ‘crisis’ comes from the Greek referring to the turning point of a severe illness, i.e. when an important change took place, indicating either recovery or death. It has also been defined as a “turning point in history; a time when a difficult or important decision must be made.” A more cynical definition is “The original cry-wolf word without which no modern newspaper could remain in business for very long.”

By parsing a supposed crisis situation into discrete events, its’ original meaning is turned topsy-turvy and, instead of being the crossroads in the natural history of an evolving situation, it becomes a series of discrete events, specialized, fallaciously tangible, and the bailiwick of experts. Consequently, managing crisis revolves around the legitimization of the crisis manager, the expert from the hallowed halls of government, the military, CNN or Fox News.

When the true meaning of crisis is trivialized and the crisis manager exalted, the viewer is diminished and reduced to fatalistic dependence. We are left with a sense of helplessness and the growing suspicion that only “they” can fix the problem.  This jacks up our already way-too-high stress levels and leaves us with a negatively fatalistic view of the world, while reinforcing the old English expression that “you can’t fight city hall.”

Mark Twain is reputed to have said “I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” It would behoove us to take his sage advice to heart. It seems to be in our nature to try to get people’s attention by crying wolf when all else fails. I remember that when we had a very sick patient in hospital we ordered lab tests and labeled them STAT to signal to the laboratory that we needed the result urgently.

As you might expect, eventually every test was being ordered as STAT and the strategy failed. If our media and community leaders continue to overuse the word ‘crisis,’ our Pavlovian response will predictably become more and more blunted. Maybe the unicorn hunters of Lake Superior State University should add ‘crisis’ to its annual list of words, which should be banished from the English language.


- Desmond Colohan, MD is a semi-retired Island physician. Some of the concepts presented in this article are abstracted from an on-line article in Democracy Journal Archives, January 1981, Sheldon S. Wollin.