This article appeared in the August 14, 2019 edition of the Monitor Daily.


How ‘safety first’ ethos is destabilizing US society

What does it mean to feel safe? As perceptions about safety change, so do discussions around how to reconcile random threats and everyday life without becoming overwhelmed. 

Eric Risberg/AP
People sign an “Educate Do Not Eradicate” poster while standing near the controversial “Life of Washington” mural at George Washington High School in San Francisco on Aug. 1. After protests, the decision was made that the 83-year-old fresco will be hidden, rather than painted over.

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Even before the recent shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, surveys showed that Americans are more fearful about more things in general. Safety may seem more elusive than ever because the very concept of what it means has expanded. It was once defined as a state of physical protection. Now it’s interpreted to mean emotional security, too.

While both of those are central to well-being, the way people think about them, some observers say, may be feeding the perception that their environment is unsafe. That leads to less contact with unfamiliar people, and makes even unthreatening acts seem harmful or ill-intended. Instead, they say, people can establish better control over how they choose to perceive their environment. Even without complete control, their fear can be countered through a wider perspective about the preponderance of good in humanity.

Diane Urban, who teaches at Manhattan College, suggests that we begin to change our internal narrative about strangers by becoming more conscious of everyday interactions. Watching the news makes people believe the world is a dangerous place, she says. “[W]e’re completely cutting ourselves off from the bigger picture, which is actually a picture of compassion and empathy and kindness.”

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How ‘safety first’ ethos is destabilizing US society

Last year, Greg Lukianoff co-wrote a bestselling book which posited that a culture of “safetyism” is burgeoning in America. By chronicling the rise of safe spaces, trigger warnings, and helicopter parenting, “The Coddling of the American Mind” cautions against “an obsession with eliminating threats (both real and imagined).”

But last week Mr. Lukianoff took to Twitter to express what so many people felt after the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.

“Yes, I know the statistics – you are unlikely to die in a mass shooting,” tweeted Mr. Lukianoff, who noted that the daughter of a family friend was among the victims in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. “But it’s not irrational for people to have out-sized fears of violence when it’s seen as random & where there’s little to nothing you can do to make sure it doesn’t touch you or your family.”

As a parent himself, Mr. Lukianoff understands the natural impulse to protect one’s children. “The jump from having zero thoughts that your kids would be targeted while they are at their schools to realizing it can happen is a big shift,” he says in an email.

Even before the recent shootings, surveys have found that Americans are more fearful about more things in general. That’s despite the fact that murder rates, kidnappings, rape, and violent crime have fallen dramatically since the 1990s.

Safety may seem more elusive than ever because the very concept of what it means has expanded. It was once defined as a state of physical protection. Now it’s interpreted to mean emotional security, too.

While both of those are central to well-being, the way people think about them, some observers say, may be feeding the perception that their environment is unsafe. That leads to less contact with unfamiliar people, and makes even unthreatening acts seem harmful or ill-intended. Instead, they say, people can establish better control over how they choose to perceive their environment. Even without complete control, their fear can be countered through a wider perspective about the preponderance of good in humanity.

“The mental safe space is a metaphor for our ability to cope with the harms that life throws at us,” says Nicholas Haslam, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, via email. “But of course some people are more resilient than others and some face more harm than others, so many of us will need more external protections. My worry is that concept creep may lead some people to exaggerate the harms they face.”

Expanding concepts of harm

Mr. Haslam has catalogued how concepts of harm have expanded since 1980. Definitions of abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction, and prejudice have become much more expansive. The idea of trauma, for example, was once reserved to describe experiences such as sexual assault, torture, or combat in a war zone. Now, he says, it’s used to describe experiences such as going through a divorce, bereavement, or losing one’s business. 

Society in general considers real threats, be they dangerous movements or criminal activity, as needing to be addressed. And there’s common agreement that the virtues of civility and respect should be upheld. But expanded concepts of harm create an impression of a prevalence of “bad stuff” in our lives, say the authors of “The Coddling of the American Mind.” That may tempt people to make safety a sacred value. The problem with such safetyism, say authors Jonathan Haidt and Mr. Lukianoff, is it engenders a state in which one never feels safe enough. That’s especially true in a balkanized era of “us versus them” tribalism. The idea of safety at all costs can lead to situations in which people are unwilling to consider social trade-offs to accommodate others.

Of late, there have been numerous examples of that. In June, a barista asked six white policemen to leave a Starbucks in Tempe, Arizona, because a white patron said they made him feel unsafe. In July, also in Arizona, a white man killed a black teen because his rap music made him feel “unsafe.” In Toronto, plans to invite uniformed policemen to march in a gay pride event were scrapped because some participants were uneasy about law enforcement’s historic role in cracking down on homosexuality.

Mr. Lukianoff, the president and CEO of free-speech advocacy group the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), says that this culture of safetyism is spreading outward into the world after taking root on college campuses. He says the quest for emotional safety – defined as a state in which one is emotionally unperturbed – is the reason why so many campuses have embraced trigger warnings, safe spaces, and calls to ban controversial guest speakers. It reflects the popular notion that uncomfortable words and ideas are inherently dangerous. 

That idea is increasingly influencing school policy, too. A school board in San Francisco recently decided to hide but not paint over a New Deal-era mural inside a high school because it depicted slavery and genocide of Native Americans. That stated rationale was to ensure “kids are mentally and emotionally feeling safe at their schools.”  

Jaime Kedrowski/Missourian/AP
Protesters and supporters of Concerned Student 1950 camp on the University of Missouri campus, in Columbia, in November 2015. During a period of protests about race relations at the school, the group utilizes the area as a "safe space" to gather away from the media.

“All of the defenses for whitewashing the mural come right out of this idiom – that kids, especially kids of color, are going to be harmed or can be traumatized,” says Jonathan Zimmerman, coauthor of the book “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools.” “Even though we don’t have evidence for this yet, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. ... If you tell them that they’re going to over and over again, then maybe they’ll start to do so.”

Spaces for respect and empathy

Not everyone agrees with that outlook. Some caution that a certain degree of protection is valid, particularly for minorities and LGBTQ individuals. Lily Zheng, a queer transgender Chinese-American woman, says that the entire world is a safe space for heterosexual white men who identify as their birth gender. As such, they have little concept of the judgment and slights – even if unintended – that marginalized people face on a daily basis. Ms. Zheng, who is a diversity and inclusion consultant for workplaces, says there’s a valid place for safe spaces on campuses and elsewhere. They’re a “home away from home” where one can can seek temporary refuge from it all. And a safe space needn’t just be a physical zone of seclusion as much as a common space in which there are ground rules for respect and empathy. Yet there is one area in which Ms. Zheng shares some common agreement with Mr. Haidt and Mr. Lukianoff: If people in control of safe spaces value the identity of trauma over the process of healing, it can lead to a sense of victimhood.

“I have seen situations where, usually if communities are feeling really powerless, they are going to adopt an identity of powerlessness and then fixate on it,” says Ms. Zheng, who adds that this happens only rarely. “It doesn’t really let people heal because their identity itself is antithetical to the process of healing.”

In contrast to Ms. Zheng, Mr. Lukianoff says that deeply held concepts of trauma are a bigger societal problem. He originally wanted to title the duo’s book “Disempowered” because he says the concept that we can be harmed by words or ideas has undermined people’s sense of agency. He says that has contributed to skyrocketing rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide, especially among teenagers who are particularly sensitive about their perceived status on social media or what their peers say. A key concept in “The Coddling of the American Mind” is that kids are not fragile and need to be exposed to challenges in order to develop immunity to stress. But helicopter parenting has taken off because parents imagine that their children are inherently fragile and prone to danger.

“We’re constantly watching them,” agrees psychologist Diane Urban, who teaches at Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York. “We become the only method they have to know if they’re safe. So it used to be if they fell down, you know if they’re really hurt they’ll cry. If they’re not sure if they’re hurt, they’ll look at you. And if you get upset, they’ll get upset.”

The downside of this well-intentioned approach to parenting, says Professor Urban, is that children don’t learn for themselves how to evaluate risk or how to weigh the consequences of their decisions. And, too often, children are taught to be wary of those they don’t know.

“I saw a little boy who was lost in a museum and he was so afraid to even approach one of the security guards, because he’s afraid of everyone,” she says. “We’ve just adopted this general idea, not only of stranger danger, but that people who are supposed to be our protectors will still be dangerous. And that in fact puts our children in greater danger because the likelihood of a police officer or a teacher or a clergy being a terrible person is actually very small.”

The psychologist says that when children are inculcated with fear of strangers, it makes it more difficult for them, in adulthood, to form trusting relationships. And they are less able to cope with social discomfort around others.  

“We’re going to be OK”

Naomi Adiv, an assistant professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto, has developed exercises intended to place her students into foreign environments where “some discomfort has to be on the agenda.” As someone who studies power dynamics in public places, she makes her students go to public events in communities of which they are not a part. In a separate exercise, Professor Adiv also encourages her students to experience different parts of the city. For some students that has meant riding a public bus for the first time, and the awareness that comes with that.

“For a time I was really disheartened because I spent six years getting a Ph.D. and I’m teaching you to ride the bus,” laughs Professor Adiv. “We have to think about power and what the discomfort means. If I go someplace and I’m uncomfortable because somebody is acting weird on a bus, in the end, that person is having a much worse day than I am. And I may have to put up with it and I may — particularly when I’m with my kids — feel very protective, but in the end we’re going to be OK.” 

Professor Urban suggests that we begin to change our internal narrative about strangers by becoming more conscious of everyday interactions. When a stranger mentions that you’ve dropped something on the ground or simply offers a smile of acknowledgement as they pass by, become more cognizant of those small acts of kindness. They are the norm, she says, while harmful acts are deviance from the norm. 

Addressing top-of-mind fears

Yet monstrous acts, such as the recent mass shootings or even crime reports on the Metro pages of a local newspaper, can suggest that we live in an inherently dangerous world. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, author of the 2011 book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” argues that data reveals that violence across the world is actually at historic lows. Modern acts of violence receive media attention precisely because they’re less commonplace. Indeed, the annual Survey of American Fears conducted by Chapman University in Orange, California, reveals a correlation between what people are afraid of at any one time and what’s most top of mind. 

“Some items tend to climb up the list depending on media coverage,” says David Shafie, associate professor of political science at Chapman. “A perfect example of this is fear of street crime, violent crime. Those things overall have been trending downward. Yet the fear remains high and we attribute that to mass media.”

But many believe that such fears can be countered by a healthy outlook of wider perspective. 

“We’re watching the news, which just bombards us with the same images over and over,” says Professor Urban. “It becomes our belief that the world is a very dangerous place and there’s anger and hatred everywhere. And by doing that we’re becoming more insulated and insular and afraid to deal with the people next door as people outside of our very intimate circle, which then causes more fear and more hatred because we’re completely cutting ourselves off from the bigger picture, which is actually a picture of compassion and empathy and kindness.”

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to clarify the nature of the assignments given by Professor Adiv to her students.

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This article appeared in the August 14, 2019 edition of the Monitor Daily.

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