The Cult of Safety
It was the 1970s. Dry cleaning bags lurked quietly behind couches waiting patiently for the opportunity to pounce on the hapless child who dropped a Lego nearby. Unguarded five-gallon buckets stood brazenly in the middle of basement floors hoping to entice their next drowning victim. Discarded refrigerators prowled the land looking for unsuspecting eight-year-olds to gobble up. GI Joes and Barbies, with the help of their little owners, were making out everywhere.
It is the 2020s. Entire schools ban peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because maybe one kid might have an allergy. Parents get visits from county protective services for letting their children play unsupervised in the park across the street. Jungle gyms are an endangered species. And third-graders are taught to not impose cisnormative constructs, let alone behaviors, on anyone or anything.
The odd thing is that the events described in the first paragraph (except the GI Joe one) were not actually happening on any grand scale. The sad thing is that the events in the second paragraph are.
There has to be a middle ground.
Admittedly, there were children -- one assumes -- who did manage to trap themselves inside random refrigerators, hence the televised public service announcements (seriously, and such a seventies solution) asking the public to at least take the handle off of the appliance before heaving it over an embankment or leaving it in a burned-lot in the Bronx. And admittedly -- again, one assumes -- a child somewhere, somehow managed to get themselves tangled up in a dry-cleaning bag. As to the bucket problem, that one is rather hard to fathom but it must have happened at least once to spawn the lawsuit that forced manufacturers to put drowning warnings -- complete with a graphic depiction of the inept toddler -- on their buckets.
Whether it was caused by the misadventures of Darwin’s children, the ever-burgeoning personal injury litigation field, a cherry-picking sensationalist media, humanity’s inability to comprehend statistics or some combination thereof, society has clearly shifted drastically from a relatively laissez faire approach to common hazards to -- not just a risk aversion or risk reduction model -- the codified elimination of risk.
There was once a feeling that hard cases make bad law; it now appears that the concept that any case must make immediate law holds sway.
The process started with some actually pretty necessary commonsense notions -- drunk driving is not actually cool, dumping toxic waste in salmon brooks might not be a good thing, smoking really can kill you so quit, don’t eat lead paint, etc. But these were the easy bits and the organizations and forces behind their implementation soon came to realize that if people started to be more sensible in general, society’s need for their input, expertise, and services -- their guiding hand -- would by definition decrease.
Take, for example, the March of Dimes. Originally started as an effort to both find a vaccine against polio and to help those already stricken, the organization in the early 1960s was facing a dilemma. With the vaccines pretty much eradicating the disease, the group was faced with a choice: declare victory and essentially close up shop or continue forward and not waste the fundraising and organizational skills and capital they had built up over the previous 20-odd years. They chose the latter and continue to this day as a very well-respected and important group, leading various initiatives to fight numerous childhood maladies, just not polio.
In the March of Dimes case, they unquestionably made the right call, and they continue to serve a vital function. But, respectfully, to state that there were no, shall we say, personal motivations involved in that decision strains credulity.
This pattern -- whether with good and righteous intent or not -- was and is being repeated over and over again as lesser people and groups actively search out something -- anything -- that could theoretically possibly be misused or can even remotely be deemed questionable (everything is questionable -- all someone has to do is ask the question) to latch onto and save us from. Whether out of true concern or some other nefarious motive -- power, profit, societal purchase -- the inexorable march towards the bubble-wrap world of today that was launched by the professional caring class continues all the way from the classroom to the living room to the newsroom to the board room.
Obviously, we can see this process in real time in the pandemic effort. From “two weeks to stop the spread” to fully vaccinated people being shame/told to wear two masks a year later, this continuing impact is a perfect example of a “gain of function” experimental research principle being implemented not in a lab but in society at large.
This form of -- or bastardization of -- progress is in fact antithetical to the tenets of a free society. By worshiping at the altar of the safe we denigrate, delay, and deny the myriad possibilities for human advancement that are inherent in the concept of risk.
It may seem to be a bit of leap to claim that the proposition that children should be warned to stop eating lead paint led inevitably to having children ask people what their preferred pronouns are so as to avoid even the semblance of giving offense, but this form of incrementalism -- whether intentional or not -- cannot be easily controlled once started.
And this is one slippery slope on which a "Cuidado Piso Mojado" sign is nowhere in sight.
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