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Safety Is Risky Business

This article was originally published in the ACR Family Mediation News, Fall, 2006, p 10-13

Where I live there is a “Wildwood Trail” that meanders for 23 miles through some quite stunning second growth forest, called, not surprisingly, Forest Park. I have never minded that there is some measure of trail maintenance—I don’t like my walks with Bean, my Canine-American companion, to be too disrupted by having to climb over fallen trees and huge ruts. But, lately, I’ve noticed a heightened level of botoxed manicurism that is disturbing. The edges of all the rocks and tree roots on and along the trail have been painted day-glo orange, and the playground equipment—the merry-go-round, teeter-totters and swings, in particular—have been removed for safety. I never really thought much about playgrounds until recently. The American playground movement from its’ inception at the turn of the last century has always been about structuring children’s play. Recently, that purpose has been taken to a new level with proposals that playgrounds be staffed with professional ‘play workers’ to ‘help’ children organize their ‘spontaneous’ play time. This seemingly benign method of assuring playground safety is little more than just another form of social control. (Carey, Benedict, “Can Johnny Come Out and (Be Taught to) Play?” New York Times, op-ed, p.3, 1-14-2007.)

This is no small issue and may be one of the most compelling social concerns for this new century. This “safety manicured” approach to life is not limited to playgrounds and the parks, but is reflective of a pernicious trend permeating our whole society. There is a prevalent hyper rationalist belief that more rules, regulations, laws, and policies make our lives safer. The risk is that more the more rules, structures and ‘play workers’ and professionals are relied upon, the less people rely on themselves, exercising their own judgment, common sense, and discretion. In the name of safety and progressive thinking, we are increasingly allowing ourselves to be herded. This is not a new problem, but is one that has become more intensified in a culture where the technical, moral and legal complexities and ambiguities of living are far more apparent and simple rules and laws can seem so alluring. Inappropriate topics, language, issues and actions can easily be outlawed as unsafe, the equivalent of being marked in day-glo orange paint. Especially in these post 9-11, and post-Columbine times, it is risky to express unpopular ideas. This mind-set is not really all that new or surprising.

There is no doubt that humans throughout history have always sought security and been willing to trade away their rights for the promise by others to take responsibility for their safety. Most organized religions, governments, and many corporations have been willing to oblige and make the deal: “if you work hard, do what your told, follow the law, and pray, and you will have salvation, and a good pension.” And while many people are more jaded, there seems to be no end to the desire to avoid personal responsibility.

Ironically, especially in the Western Cultures, where people most need to believe they exercise ‘free will,’ and categorically assert their natural rights as individuals to make their own life decisions, few appear interested in being responsible for their own lives. That is true for almost all of us sometimes (when I’m hurting, I just want the doctor to fix me, I don’t want to think about it), and for many of us too much of the time (“just tell me what to do to make it better”). Most continue to believe that professionals, doctors, lawyers, judges, counselors, ministers, rabbis, priests, and even mediators, know the right and best answers. Television shows like House, the Doctor who is always right, and all the CSI’s (Crime Scene Investigation) in New York, Las Vegas and Miami, reinforce the operative myths of truth, justice, and rationality. In the course of an hour program each week, through science, the one right answer is discovered, truth uncovered, and guilty person convicted. The professionals are the high priests of this secular religious faith in science, and thus, always know best. With security in the belief that professionals know best, and how safe it feels to rely on their expertise, is it any wonder that people hesitate to negotiate or mediate their disputes. Better to leave difficult life decisions to the experts and avoid the risky business of making your own decisions. It all starts on the playground.

Most of us know intellectually that this relentless pursuit of safety and security at all costs may be a deal with the Devil. There is, as Edward Tenner terms it, a ‘revenge effect,’ an unintended consequence: making things seem safer with more rules, regulations and structures generates more conflict, greater threats, and encourages greater risk-taking. To be sure, some risks are clearly knowable and avoidable, but others are not. For the latter, the best conflict managers know that not every ‘what if this happens’ can be accommodated. There is always the risk of over-planning—failing to recognized that for every risk managed with a rule or law, or drug, there may be other, sometimes more serious, risks created. The biggest risk of all is to the extent we overly rely on others to protect us,. There is evidence, for example, that cars with more safety devices tend to be driven less safely. There may well be more conflict, divisiveness and partisanship nowadays, not because people are less civil, but because engaging others directly in difficult discussions is less acceptable. We manage conflicts through passive-aggressive e-mail missives that raise the level of anger and make for less communication, not more. Sometimes we are so preoccupied with insisting on ‘civil dialogue’— often code for ‘I won’t listen to you unless you say it the right way,” and meant to control and suppress expression—that the discussion becomes all the more shrill and people resort to more extreme positions to demand attention.

But not to worry. As usually happens in human evolution, partially in response to this obsessive preoccupation with safety practiced by their elders, the younger generation has gone to other extreme, reflected in their attraction to unregulated and unsupervised extreme sports. There are no playground workers when a 14 year old snowboards off a cliffs, mountain-bikes down the three-inch wide spine of a mountain with a sheer drops on both sides, does BMX bike tricks over walls and off roofs, or skateboards down handrails, all of which activities court serious injury. Part of the attraction is in protest against the homogenization of the traditional sports—football, baseball and even wrestling— which have become so safety conscious that they no longer provide a means for kids to test themselves. Sports have historically offered a rite of passage for young people to explore their own limits and test themselves in the face of risk. Sports are a substitute for war. Because the established sports fail to provide a sufficient risk factor and become overly structured, extreme sports have emerged to fill the void. Like it or not, risk is part of our evolutionary biology and psychology.

At first glance, these extreme sports are just plain crazy. They appear to possess too much of that risk-taking gene that is supposedly part of our biological make-up. But the kids who do this stuff give me cause for hope. Their dedication and discipline to study, practice, and perfect their stunts, accepting the risks in stride, is impressive. No school can teach that dedication, nor could a law compel it. They are outlaws who have created their own parallel world that refreshingly reminds us of the need and value of risk, and obversely, the risk of becoming too preoccupied with safety. With luck, some of those kids’ hard-knocks learning will carry over into taking responsibility for themselves the rest of their lives—if they survive.


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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