Western society has become addicted to safety. Virtually every institution claims safety as one of its core values. Safety has become an end in itself, and even the mere hint that a particular product or form of behavior is unsafe causes it to be denounced as immoral. Perversely, the very obsession with safety fosters a climate of anxiety that makes people feel more insecure, not less. When safety turns into a supposed supreme problem that touches on every domain of human experience, people’s capacity to make sense of their fears diminishes.
Throughout history, communities have deliberated on the relationship between safety and fear. “Fear is the foundation of safety,” noted the early Church Father Tertullian, reasoning that concern with safety motivates people to deliberate and plan. And indeed the aspiration for safety has been usually expressed through individuals and communities taking sensible precautions to limit exposure to harm. But the meaning attached to safety has become radically transformed in recent times.
In the current era two important and mutually reinforcing developments have altered the way safety is perceived. First, the definition of harm has greatly expanded and, second, its consequences are perceived as far more damaging and catastrophic than previously imagined. As to the latter, in the language of everyday life harms are often dramatized with the use of terms like “existential,” “incalculable,” and “irreversible.” As to the former, these inflated threat assessments are not confined to high-profile dangers such as those pertaining to the environment and global terrorism, for example; they are now regularly applied to the everyday experiences of society. So children who have been harmed are referred to as “scarred for life” or “damaged.”
The hyperbolic expansion of the meaning of harm has led to a fundamental revision to the significance that society attaches to safety. Safety has become a cultural obsession to the point that many institutions and policymakers have adopted the ideal of a “harm-free” world as a realistic objective, a fantasy perhaps most strikingly expressed through intolerance toward risk and accidents. Thus, America’s emergency medical establishment has been in the forefront of the movement to banish the word “accident” from their lexicon, replacing it with the term “preventable injury.”
The assumption that, in principle, all injuries are avoidable is integral to the project of constructing a harm-free world. At least rhetorically, what used to be a pious hope has mutated into a belief in it as a realistic option. With so much energy devoted to the elimination of harm, safety is not simply valued; it has become a value in its own right.
During the course of investigating society’s aspiration for a harm-free world, I inspected 150 corporate and institutional value statements selected randomly online. No doubt such value statements are principally drawn up with a view to responding to the exigencies of liability and public relations. Nevertheless, the ethos they adopt and the norms they promote provide useful insights into the institutional culture they represent. Virtually all the statements reviewed refer to safety as a “core value.” Many of them also uphold a commitment to what they refer to as a “safety philosophy”, and often contend that they uphold safety as a “way of life.” Advocates of so-called safety policy often promote the ideal of zero harm. As one advocate of “Treating Safety as a Value” explained:
The “safety is a value” ethos is founded on the fundamental philosophy that all injuries are preventable and that the goal of zero injuries can be achieved. To introduce this concept to a workplace, company leaders must develop a vision and commit to it. This commitment must be cascaded down through the management structure.
The importance that advocates of a zero-harm society attach to safety means that all other concerns and principles have to be subordinated to this goal. But one need not worry about tradeoffs, for there are none. The author of the above statement goes on to promise that the “reward of zero injuries over the long term will make the effort worthwhile—in both financial and human terms.” From this institutional perspective, the objective of a zero injury environment is not only realistic but also a worthwhile proposition with no downsides—just good business practice.
The introduction of rigorous safety regimes in workplaces, public institutions, and throughout society has made a significant contribution to the reduction of physical injuries. OSHA may be bureaucratized and overbearing at times, but virtually no one prefers things the way they were before the law creating it went into effect in December 1970. Most economically advanced societies, not just the United States, are safer for workers than in any previous stage of human history.
But paradoxically the achievement of unprecedented levels of physical safety has coincided with a heightened sense of insecurity. In these circumstances, the constant pursuit of a utopian vision of a harm-free world does little to help people feel secure. Since it continually draws attention to safety as a condition that is presumably still absent, it reinforces the sense of insecurity. In other words, Western society’s permanent quest for safety serves to highlight the absence of it. That is why, despite the unprecedented resources devoted to securing a harm-free world, Western societies appear to be far more troubled than others on account of safety’s presumed absence.
Safety and Fear
As also noted, the contemporary Western meaning of fear stands in sharp contrast to the way it was perceived in previous historical epochs. Until the 20th century fear was often regarded as an emotional state that meshed with moral concerns. According to the cultural norms dominant until about the end of the 19th century, fear was regarded as a medium for cultivating moral values. Distinctions were often drawn between good and bad fears, and communities provided people with moral and practical guidance on this subject. Religious and moral codes praised the positive attributes of fear, so long as it was the right kind of fear.
In the Judeo-Christian context, fear—specifically the “fear of God,” as the English translation of the original Hebrew invariably has it—is praised for helping people to discover, embrace, and adhere to moral virtues. According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is through the fear of God that the righteous may gain access to moral knowledge. That is why the fear of God is a central feature of Jewish and Christian theology. Some have argued that the earliest term for religion in biblical Hebrew and other Semitic languages is “fear of God”, and the usage of that phrase as a synonym for religion continued until relatively recently.
Both the Old and the New Testaments treat the fear of God as the prerequisite for the acquisition of moral virtue. The Bible offers a veritable cultural script providing guidance on what, and what not, to fear. Time and again Moses encouraged the Jews not to fear their enemies but to fear God instead. Moses exhorted his people, “Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God” (Deuteronomy 10:20-21), and continued: “Do not be afraid of the nations there, for the Lord your God will fight for you” (Deuteronomy 3:22). Elsewhere, he advised the Jews to “fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today.” He promised that, “the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again” (Exodus 14:13). Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the fear of God is endowed with positive attributes and is depicted as a moral duty. The Book of Job informs us that, “the fear of the Lord is wisdom” (Job 28:28), and also Proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7).
Abrahamic religion is avowed on the grounds that it helps people to come to terms with their fears by endowing this and other aspects of human emotional experience with meaning—specifically, by integrating fear into culturally common socializing narratives about right and wrong, credit and blame.
Many secular thinkers and philosophers have also emphasized the moral dimension of fear. Aristotle understood that harms could not be abolished and argued that moral virtues, particularly courage, could serve as a medium for coming to terms with our fears. From this perspective, the aspiration for safety was a practical matter, not an idealized virtue. Friedrich Nietzsche praised the Athenian leader Pericles, who in his the famous Funeral Speech celebrated his people’s “indifference and contempt for safety, body and life.” Nietzsche characterized society’s preference for safety and comfort over risk as a form of slave morality.
Many 19th-century philosophers and thinkers shared a modified version of Nietzsche’s contempt for the valuation of safety. John Stuart Mill admonished those for whom safety trumped all other causes, stating that a “man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”
Since the early 20th century, but especially since the 1970s, the regulation of fear through shared moral norms has largely unraveled. As Philip Rieff pointed out as long ago as 1966 in his classic The Triumph of the Therapeutic, it is not theologians or philosophers who now provide authoritative guidelines about the relationship between fear and safety, but psychologists.
One of the most significant contributions of psychology was to disassociate fear from the grammar of morality. By the 1970s a medicalized version of fear gained hegemony and psychology dictated that most people, and especially children, lacked the resources to deal with their fears. From this perspective, the threat posed by the emotion of fear was of such magnitude that its management required the intervention of psychologically informed experts. The medicalized account of fear has been underpinned ever since by the assumption that people, again especially children, are too fragile to deal forthrightly with the harms they face. The expansive regime of safety serves to protect people from having to confront threats that are increasingly perceived as harboring the potential to inflict irreversible emotional harms.
The shift from the moral to the psychological basis for thinking about fear is, above all, what has transformed Western society’s perception of safety. The rhetoric of a harm-free world and its obsessive quest for safety should be understood as a sublimated expression of fears that are morally uncontained.
The Quest for an Inverted Quarantine
Although many values statements celebrating safety tend to focus on preventing physical injuries and harms, in recent times the threats that preoccupy society are increasingly directed at damages caused to people’s emotions. Emotional injury to the individual is frequently portrayed as more damaging than a physical injury; as something that, again, can leave the person “damaged for life.” Hence the moral panic of a few decades past about the supposed great prevalence of child sexual abuse, recalled through the medium of repressed memories almost miraculously liberated by experts.
Unlike physical harm, emotional harm is limited only by the imagination, and as everyone knows, the imagination can concoct pretty much anything, whether it has a basis in lived experience or not. So regardless of intent, a gesture or a comment can be perceived in a way that causes damage. According to child protection guidelines used now in Britain, emotional abuse can refer to virtually every parental failing, from “failure to meet a child’s need for affection” to being so “over protective and possessive” that children are prevented from experiencing “normal social contact or normal physical activity.”
The expansion of the diagnosis of emotional harm is not confined to children. Contemporary cultural norms work to continually lower the threshold of acceptable distress, and therefore encourage individuals to interpret unpleasant experiences, or merely “blue” periods,” as damaging to their emotional health.
The omnipresence of emotional harms lends the deification of safety. The adjective “safe”—as in safe sex, safe drinking, safe eating, safe schools, and safe space—signals responsible behavior; the exhortation to “stay safe” is a secular version of “may God be with you.” That is why the demand for safety and protection from harm is so readily recognized as a legitimate claim for an entitlement to be validated and recognized. The attribution of safety to an experience or to a product endows them with qualities that automatically earn our approval, while individuals and institutions are frequently attacked for not exercising enough caution.
These psycho-social dynamics have not gone unnoticed. The UC-Santa Cruz sociologist Andrew Szasz invented the concept of “Inverted Quarantine” as a way to describe these developments. Unlike a traditional quarantine, which seeks to isolate sick individuals to keep them from spreading disease to the public, an inverted quarantine represents the opposite impulse of people isolating themselves from the harms that they perceive as threatening. Inverted quarantines constitute a response to the fear that the human condition is inherently unsafe.
Arguably the most striking example of a demand for an inverted quarantine is the emergence of the ideal of a safe space. Unlike a gated community set up to keep out undesirable outsiders, the purpose of a safe space is to protect its inhabitants from unwelcome criticism and thoughts. A shift in emphasis from gaining physical security from the threat of outside intruders to securing a sanctuary from exposure to unwelcome ideas illustrates the constant expansion of the demand for safety from something physical and visible to something abstract and invisible.
More than any aspiration thrown up by our culture of fear, the concept of a safe space highlights its two key features: the contention that the space inhabited by humanity is fundamentally unsafe, and the assertion that people are inherently “at risk” and so “vulnerable” that they are unlikely to cope with the challenges that life hurls at them without professional help.
The tendency to perceive virtually every dimension of human experience as a safety issue has altered people’s attitude to the future and the uncertainties they encounter. It often leads to the emergence of a sensibility that Christopher Lasch once characterized as survivalism. “Everyday life has begun to pattern itself on the survival strategies forced on those exposed to extreme adversity,” observed Lasch. In his superb study of this important cultural shift, Lasch attributed this development to the prominence that Western societies in general and America in particular gave to the question of survival from the early 1970s onwards. One symptom of this obsession with survivalism was the normalization of crisis and a tendency to perceive every issue, no matter how “fleeting or unimportant,” as a “matter of life or death.”
The idealization of safety and survival as values in their own right has acquired a commanding influence over public life. From this perspective the exaltation of heroism and courage by previous generations became almost entirely incomprehensible, except perhaps within the confines of societies’ warrior classes—the military and, far less so, police work. “Survivalism leads to a devaluation of heroism,” remarked Lasch, as was the “entire stock of allegedly outworn ideals of honor, heroic defiance of circumstances, and self-transcendence.” These traditional virtues have been displaced by the quest for safety.
But in this quest safety has acquired an indeterminate quality. To the question “safe from what?” the only logical answer is “potentially anything.” And again we are taken from the precincts of lived reality, which is typically experienced in a direct unmediated way, into those precincts indistinguishable cognitively from magic and mysticism, which can only be apprehended though abstractions.
The Freedom/Safety Tradeoff
Thomas Hobbes is the philosopher most widely associated with the project of assigning safety a central role in political discourse. In the aftermath of the upheavals of the English Civil War, Hobbes attempted to harness people’s basic impulse of self-preservation to justify a theory of sovereignty underpinned by fear. He argued that, driven by the fear of death and the aspiration for security, people would be willing to trade away their freedom in exchange for the safety provided by an all-powerful sovereign. He wrote that people “agree to create a sovereign because they are afraid of one another.”
In contrast to Hobbes, who highlighted the fear of death as the motive for exchanging freedom for security, in the contemporary era concern about safety is directed at the most banal, everyday features of life. Judging by the numerous health warnings issued about the most mundane aspects of human existence. it is not the actual fear of death but rather the fear of life that preoccupies the 21st-century Western imagination. Unlike the age-old practice of the politics of fear, the politicization of safety intrudes on the minutiae of people’s lives.
One of the most unattractive features of the deification of safety is the apparent tendency to elevate its dictates above the value of freedom. Within the moral framework of the culture of fear, safety and security are first-order values, while freedom is reduced to a second-order value at best. That is why the argument that curbing the right to free speech on college campuses is supposedly a small price to pay to protect someone from the pain of being offended has gained traction in recent times.
The relationship between freedom and safety has been a subject of debate throughout history. In numerous instances, the very human impulse to achieve safety has been used as an excuse to limit the exercise of freedom. This point was recognized, not least, by Alexander Hamilton: “Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct,” he wrote in November 1787, warning that “even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates,” which will “compel nations” to “destroy their civil and political rights.” With a hint of fatalism, Hamilton suggested that “to be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.” Another of Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, was unequivocal about the matter: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
Of course tradeoffs between freedom and safety are real. The liberties that people enjoy do need to be harmonized with a community’s need for security; no polity guarantees absolute freedom, which is why every civilization has laws and means to enforce them. Security concerns are in a sense constant because no society can ever be perfectly secure, but they also can fluctuate, which is why measures to protect the commons—whether from terrorism, pandemic disease, or civil strife—must fluctuate as well. An extraordinary situation can rightly call for extraordinary protective measures, but they have to be recognized as extraordinary and temporary, rather than being ground into the bedrock of social reality to persist long after the dangers calling them forth subside.
That is what the argument about the responses to the post-9/11 “war on terror” has come down to at this point. On both sides of the Atlantic, the exigencies of safety and security were used to justify laws and procedures limiting aspects of civil liberty. One of the most troubling dimensions of this development has been the relentless trend towards the colonization of people’s private lives. Advocates of expanding intrusive instruments of surveillance actively promote calls for trading off privacy for safety, and in many instances citizens have been convinced to accept “Big Brother” watching over them in order to keep them safe. But what made sense to many as a precaution 17 years ago does not make so much sense now, as mass-casualty terrorism never amounted to an existential threat to any Western state. That this turned out to be the case was not clear at the time, and the politics of the time reflected that uncertainty.
But again, the key issue is what kind of danger and harm we are talking about. When a danger is real and most everyone can agree on what it is, the threat to liberty in taking precautions is relatively mild. We can still argue about whether President Lincoln was right to suspend habeas corpus during the Civil War, but no one argues that it should not have been reinstated when the situation changed. The real problem for liberal democracies, anyway, is when dangers are imagined, or exaggerated, or fabricated, and can be manipulated by political entrepreneurs.
The argument that liberty should be traded for security has been raised and re-raised by authorities throughout history. Erich Fromm’s classic 1941 book Escape from Freedom didn’t spring forth from a void. And many intelligent observers have criticized the ease with which political leaders were able to win public approval for now seemingly permanent abridgments of freedom in the aftermath of 9/11.
But when a similar surrendering of freedom is proposed in relation to prohibiting offensive speech in order to protect the emotional state of people who are offended by it, the advocates of freedom are conspicuous by their silence. Indeed, trading off freedom for some alleged psychic benefit is not unlike the argument that authoritarian-minded politicians frequently employ for justifying policies that curb people’s rights in order to “preserve their freedom”—a form of argument that takes us deep into Orwellian territory. How are people freer if they require a phalanx of supposed experts and institutions to keep them safe?
But here we are, living at a time when fear untethered to any traditional, meaning-giving framework of moral reasoning has driven people of nearly every political persuasion ever so slightly crazy. Take Donald Trump’s campaign promise to build a big, beautiful wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. A wall designed to prevent Mexican migrants from entering the United States was regarded by many of Trump’s supporters as a symbol of dutifully confronting an existential security threat. So we wall ourselves in to keep ourselves safe, as an expression of our freedom?
Yet many of Trump’s opponents are no less committed to constructing an inverted quarantine to keep people safe from other more abstract, emotional dangers. The impulse that fuels the demand for safe spaces is not entirely unlike the yearning for safety encapsulated by the slogan “Build that Wall.”
Alas, the act of trading in freedom for security does not make people feel safe. It heightens people’s awareness of their lack of control over their lives and thereby enhances their sense of insecurity. Moreover, the loss of any of our freedoms undermines people’s capacity to deal with the threats they do face. Examples are so plentiful from everyday life that one would think that pointing this out would be unnecessary. What happens when “helicopter” parents refuse to let their kids walk to school alone, or self-organize outdoor play, or go trick-or-treating without adult chaperones, or ride their bike around the block without a helmet? Kids are not stupid: They pick up on their parents’ fears and most ultimately assimilate much of it, making them far more fearful of life in general than they otherwise would be. No one should need to point out something so obvious, but we do need to point it out all the same.
The generic problem is no secret. It has been recognized by numerous policymakers working in national security, for example. Back at the turn of the present century, The Report of the National Commission on Terrorism (2000) took the view that “if the terrorists’ goal is to challenge significantly Americans’ sense of safety and confidence,” even a relatively small chemical or biological attack “could be successful.” Though the report’s prognosis was excessively pessimistic, it pointed to a real problem—for indeed the quest to achieve safety from terrorism, in the form of the bureaucratized paranoia we have inflicted on ourselves, has had the perverse effect of making us feel more insecure.
Safety cannot be acquired just by wanting it, and it certainly cannot be acquired by wanting it so badly that people ignore the very consequences of wanting it so badly. Those who propose avoiding risk and gaining safety will inevitably discover that what they acquire are obsessions about their insecurities, not solutions for them.
The constant focus of policymakers and politicians on the issue of safety unwittingly intensifies the public’s anxieties and insecurities about the future. And the more insecure people feel—having been taught that only experts can manage their problems—the more they turn to authority to assuage it.
Dominic Cooper, “Treating Safety as a Value,” Professional Safety (February 2001).
R.H. Pfeiffer, “The Fear of God,” Israel Exploration Journal
Vol. 5, No. 1 (1955).
Mill, “The Contest in America,” Dissertations and Discussions, vol. 1, p. 26 (1868). First published in Fraser’s Magazine (February 1862).
Szasz, Shopping Our Way to Safety: How We Changed from Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves (University of Minnesota Press, 2009).
Lasch, The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival In Troubled Times (W.W. Norton, 1984), p. 57.
Lasch, p. 60.
Lasch, pp. 72-3.
Hamilton, “The Consequences of Hostilities Between the States,” Federalist 8.