Safety & Safetyism
Editor | On 16, Jun 2019
Last month I felt inspired to write something (Reference 1) in defence of the ‘Nanny-State’ accusations increasingly being thrown at, usually, individuals who appeared to be offering up advice over-protecting others. For example, people like celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver and his one-man crusade to get British people eating more healthily. The point was that in many cases their highly legitimate safety warnings were being rubbished using the ‘nanny-state’ cry by large corporations with a vested interest in continuing to sell everyone stuff that is dangerous to society’s well-being. It was written just after I’d read talk-show DJ, James O’Brien’s plea for a rejection of meaningless sloganism and a return to thinking, ‘How To Be Right’ (Reference 2).
Coincidentally, not long after reading O’Brien’s book, I found myself reading through ‘The Coddling Of The American Mind (Reference 3). A big part of the theme of this book was that large swathes of Western academia have become infested with ‘safetyism’ and the wholesale over-protection of students. There seemed to be a contradiction with my ‘Nanny-State’ blog article message that we’re being ‘under-protected’ thanks to an invisible big-business-lead conspiracy. The contradiction looked something like this:
Figure 1: Creativity As Moving To A New State Analogy
Finding a good contradiction is often the trigger for some important learning. Let’s see if that might be the case by examining one of the three great Untruths discussed in the ‘Coddling…’ book. The Nietzsche aphorism, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” has, since 2013 been reversed by many parents, teachers, school administrators, and students themselves to now read, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker’. They have bought into a myth that students and children are inherently fragile. For the most part, this represents an understandable desire to protect children from emotional trauma. But overwhelming evidence suggests that this approach makes kids less psychologically stable. By over-sheltering kids, Lukianoff and Haidt show us, we end up exposing them to more serious harm when the eventually encounter a situation where parents and teachers don’t step in to protect them.
On the other hand, taken literally, Nietzsche’s famous aphorism is not entirely correct. Some things that don’t kill you can still leave you permanently damaged and diminished.
So where does that leave us? As shown on the physical contradiction defining right hand side of Figure 1, safety is both good and not good. Drawn graphically, physical contradictions look like u-shaped or parabolic graphs. Here’s what that graph looks like when we plot the relationship between safety measures and the safety those measures do or don’t produce:
Figure 2: Safety Measures & The Effect They Have On Safety
What this curve tells us is that, at first, adding more safety measures has a positive effect on safety, but then after a certain point, adding more safety measures causes safety performance to decline. We see a classic example of this with pedestrian safety on our roads: providing people with specific places to cross busy roads like zebra-crossings reduces the number of cars hitting pedestrians, but then when the state introduces jay-walking laws, puts traffic-lights and cameras onto the crossing, safety goes down again. Putting up a handrail makes staircases safer; putting up signs telling people to hold the handrail makes safety go down again. By adding ‘too much’ safety advice, you end up turning people into unthinking idiots.
The graph begins to help solve the more-and-less safety contradiction. My ‘nanny-state’ article is all about the left-hand-side of the picture. People like Jamie Oliver, like him or not, is trying to tell us important stuff about eating more healthily. If we listened to him rather than the corporate-sponsored media seeking to ridicule him, we’d all be safer. What Lukianoff and Haidt describe in their academia horror story is all about the right hand side of the curve – the ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker’ pronouncements of well-meaning liberal academics are counter-productive because they over-protect people by turning students into unthinking idiots.
Actually, the story is a little more complex than that. A significant part of the ‘Coddling…’ story is about emotional safety rather than physical safety. And when we distinguish specifically between the two, we get a graph that looks like this:
Figure 3: Relative Safety Measure Impact On Emotional And Physical Safety
Emotional safety (the new green line on the graph) also follows in increasing-decreasing trajectory but this time the peak position is at a much lower level of safety measure than it is for physical safety. Having ‘some’ level of emotional safety measures in place is a good idea, but it is very easy, as we’re seeing in academia right now, to over-egg the pudding.
By way of an example of how ‘some’ emotional safety is a good idea, I’m reminded of the time the thirteen-year-old version of my sister found herself watching The Exorcist with some of her school friends. She spent the next two weeks sleeping in my mum’s bed, afraid to be alone at night. Horror movies carry 18 Certificates for a good reason. But go much beyond that and we fall into the ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker’ trap, emotionally speaking. Over-protect people by giving them ‘safe spaces’ to retreat from speakers with controversial opinions about the world and you make them very fragile. So that when they’re released into the big wide world they have no coping skills. Wrap people in emotional cotton-wool and you make them emotionally very fragile. This is what ‘safetyism’ is all about: trying to impose more safety measures when we’re past the peak of the curve.
And so, the safety-and-no-safety physical contradiction becomes quite easy to solve. We solve it on condition: If the current safety measures are below the safetyism peak, adding more is a good idea; if we’re beyond the peak, adding more is a really bad idea.
- O’Brien, J., ‘How To Be Right… In A World Gone Wrong’, WH Allen, 2018.
- Lukianoff, G., Haidt, J., ‘The Coddling Of The American Mind: How Good Intentions And Bad Ideas Are Setting Up A Generation For Failure’, Allen Lane, 2018.