Safety: the anti-gift

The more we talk about safety, the less safe we feel. Because talking about safety is talking about the things that threaten our safety. It means talking about what we should do to handle those threats to our safety, or talking about how powerless we are in reality.

Visible security measures make us feel less safe. Think about how safe you feel walking into a pub on a summer’s evening. Now imagine a security guy standing at the door of that pub, slightly blocking your entrance, wearing his yellow tabard-y thing that might as well have “I WISH I WAS A REAL POLICEMAN” printed on the back. Do you feel more or less safe because he’s there?

The book Ground Control by Anna Minton is great on how security paraphernalia makes people feel less safe: CCTV cameras, gated communities. Of course you have to consider what’s cause and what’s effect; sometimes a building has metal shutters on the windows for a damn good reason, and it’s that damn good reason that’s making you feel afraid rather than the shutters themselves. But in my mind, there are two kinds of safety.

There’s the kind of safety that’s about logically-calculated risk, and reasonable steps to reduce that risk.  And there’s the kind of safety which is a state of mind, and a fragile state of mind at that. Often we think we’re talking about one when we’re really talking about the other. We say things like “The stupid woman should have been wearing a cycle helmet,” when what we really mean is: “That wasn’t my daughter, but it could have been my daughter, and I need a reason why it couldn’t possibly have been my daughter, because I can’t stand the thought that it could have been.”

Humans are shit at making reasonable calculations of risk, and that would be kind of OK if we were good at trusting the people who make these calculations properly on our behalf. But because safety is an emotional issue, and because our media and education system doesn’t train us to think about this stuff properly, we often don’t trust the right people or do the right things. We ignore Richard Doll and listen to Andrew Wakefield. We victim-blame to reassure ourselves that bad stuff could never happen to us. We buy oversensitive alarm systems that teach bystanders to ignore alarms.

What I’m trying to say is: safety is an anti-gift. It’s something that’s much easier to take away than to give.

You probably feel at your safest when you’re not thinking about safety or doing anything about safety. Going to a fire safety workshop and learning about how to reduce your home’s fire risk is a great idea – but afterwards, you will feel more worried than you were before. You’ll feel less safe, even though you’ve just reduced your chances of a house fire.

That’s because the two kinds of safety, logical and emotional, don’t fit together too well. Rational steps to reducing risk can make us more frightened and anxious than before. But psychological stuff like othering, victim-blaming, distraction and obsessive-compulsive rituals can make us feel safer even if they don’t do a damn thing to protect us.

My only advice, which I don’t always take, is to respect both aspects of safety. Yes, definitely do examine statistics, try to put incidents in context, look at the science, get advice from professionals, ignore the Daily Mail. But don’t ignore or deny the part of you that just feels afraid, whether or not that’s rational. Don’t feel silly about acknowledging what makes you feel uneasy and taking steps to make yourself feel safer. Sometimes your instincts can save you. But emotions don’t have to be of any practical use to be respected.

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2 Comments on “Safety: the anti-gift”


  1. […] Ushering in the ymdidan reich « Safety: the anti-gift […]


  2. […] In other words, being prepared for the worst makes you the threat. Opting for stuff over systems makes you the threat. Why? My only guess right now is that this civilisation we all depend on is a fragile thing, and it depends on the majority of people buying in to it. The same with respect for the authorities. So the US government wants to discourage people from behaving as if they can’t trust the state or their neighbours, in case it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Safety is an anti-gift. […]


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