Safety Cannot Always Be Our First Priority

We are becoming so averse to risk that we might creating all new problems that are potentially far worse than the ones we were trying to solve.

Last week I was driving down the interstate and noticed three different billboards that shared messages about safety in just a few miles. During this time I heard the word safety four times during a single commercial break on the radio. Later when I got home I loaded Spotify and my news apps and was also bombarded by that word by both of those mediums. And now all the local clerks at the stores I patronize have stopped telling me to “Take it easy, boss.”* – and are now throwing me a – “Stay safe out there.” No matter where I look or listen I am surrounded by utterances of safety as if it is the only thing in the world that matters.

*Welcome to New Mexico!

I must admit, this could just be me. Just like if a new word or song or number gets stuck in your head, it somehow appears out in the world with a frequency you cannot recall ever encountering before. I do realize this is possible, but I doubt that it is true, because even if it weren’t for the increased interaction with the word, the products of safety’s application as a concept is unmistakenly apparent in my every day life. I believe strongly it is also happening all across the world, but I will speak only from my experience as a United States native.

This idea that safety must always be the first priority is at extreme odds with the ideology of those who founded this country, who insisted that personal freedom and liberty should always be the first consideration. Those founders were inconsistent, contradictory, hypocritical and left a lot to be desired so far as moral character and ideas – but even though they failed miserably in applying the principles of personal freedom and liberty equally, they were not wrong in making those the fundamental basis of a new society. During the the two-and-a-half centuries since then we have miscarried those principles as is evident in our history of slavery, segregation, institutionalized sexism – but at the same time those wrongs were only addressed by those who persisted in seeking freedom and liberty for all. And even when we did not live up to that, we believed in it, and strove for it in ways that defined our cultural conscience and character. Even when we disagreed how to get there, we could all agree that personal freedom and liberty for all should be the goal. And then 9/11 happened.

September 11, 2001 was the turning point for our national and personal priorities. Freedom and liberty were things we were were asked to sacrifice in exchange for safety, as the government began building a massive surveillance state and wiggling us into an unending war against terrorism, which is a tactic and not a target, a very convenient target which allows the industrial military complex to engorge itself in perpetuity with an ever shifting narrative of justifications. Out of fear many were convinced to go along with this, while others became concerned about the unintended consequences and opportunity for abuse and misuse in this shift of priority from personal freedom and liberty to safety. But since it was bigger than any one of us, eventually most of us stopped fighting and learned how to exist while swimming with new currents. Time + powerlessness = surrender.

At first people merely conceded to safety as the principle priority, but over time they have come to insist upon it. This makes it easy for the unscrupulous to appeal to safety as justification for whatever their personal or professional agendas are actually behind. It has become the proverbial carrot on a stick which can be used to lead those who cannot see where they are going, only what they are chasing. It has made us more naive, gullible and easy to exploit than ever before – which can be measured by the wealth inequality gap that has grown massively during this time. It has become incredibly easy to manufacture consent by selling us on safety, while not actually selling us anything. However let’s put aside the potential for exploitation that prioritizing safety first has created, and focus on why it would still be problematic if the desire for safety was taken at face value.

The first line of defense in the logic of safety is prevention. You recognize a risk and try put a system in place to prevent the undesired outcome from occurring. You do this by understanding that risk and building a prediction model which tells you what restrictions to personal freedom and liberty will optimize safety. This model is based on statistics and induction. The problem is that statistics can be interpreted in numerous ways, and do not represent actual individuals or events. Statistics yield no objectively verifiable course of correct action, and are forced onto people who do not act at all like the statistics those subjective courses of action are based on. And induction, while often a useful rule of thumb, is itself a fallacious means of reasoning. Prevention models are inherently irrational. They really on guesswork, and generally tend towards uninformed intuitive actions – things that seem safe to the average person who has not taken the time to gather a more nuanced and complex view on things and is almost entirely unconcerned with unintended consequences. Or which are prescribed by experts so invested in their specialized area of knowledge that they are blind to all other considerations.

This is not to say that prevention is always or entirely impossible. We can somewhat manage outcomes by forcing everyone to conform to some standard of behavior, but only at the cost of their personal freedom and liberty. And asking people to sacrifice those for something that has no guarantees is asking a lot. Asking them to sacrifice those for something that could eventually produce even more damaging outcomes is downright treacherous. And unintended consequences aren’t just possible, they are inevitable.

I am going to metaphorically evoke the concept of entropy, although I could just as well refer to a classic children’s song, to get my point across. As order increases so does the cost of maintaining that order, and as that cost becomes a strain on the system, it begins to break down into disorder. Any attempt at order, given sufficient resources, will eventually produce a breakdown of the entire system. Therefore the best way of maintaining stability is to reduce order and it’s cost on the system.

By making safety our first priority, we are creating systems that use incredible amounts of our resources, and rapidly concocting the inevitable disorder and breakdown which will make us less safe than when we started. We are living in the shadow of a monolith of safety we created which will eventually grow too large and crush everything beneath it.

In the past year the panicked response to coronavirus and the desperate attempts at control and safety have caused this monolith to grow faster and larger than ever before. It’s collapse is not inevitable, but becomes increasingly likely as we lean into our obsession with safety, and with prioritizing it above all else. Unless we shift our priorities we are steering this ship right into the iceberg, which will be all the more calamitous given the size of this ship that we cannot seem to stop enlarging.

The first place to start is radical acceptance. To learn to face your inevitable death, and all the turbulence along the way to it, with graceful acceptance. Do not worry how long you will live, but how much joy, beauty and love that you can squeeze into every single day – for yourself and others. Do not think of yourself as responsible for other people’s safety, but as a participant in their potential happiness. We cannot stop terrible things from happening and death is not the enemy – but we can give each other the strength to face those things with courage, humility and even humor. That is the best we can hope for, to try to live a good life. There are no eternal rewards for time served. A life lived solely in pursuit of longevity is a life not lived at all.

Risk is beautiful. Everything great started as a risk. Every step of our evolution was made by taking risks. The most ecstatic and memorable moments are made while taking risks. Risk is not a bug of existence, it is one of the defining features. When you become compulsively attached to safety you miss out on or fail to appreciate some of the greatest things in life. Obsessing over safety is a dark, cynical and self-defeating way to live and to view your own existence. You deserve better than that, but if that isn’t what you want, at the very least you can allow the rest of us to live according to our own standards and values rather than yours – and if you cannot, you deserve nothing. Fear earns you exactly nothing and makes you a liability to yourself and others. Get it under control. In the end that is all we can hope to control – our fear. Your weakness and inability to do so should be nobody’s burden or responsibility but your own.*

*I am not talking about people with legitimate mental health concerns, and I am not disregarding empathy or compassion, only suggesting that they should be employed towards extending the quality of life and not just a futile quest for immortality.

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