Safety first: do we live in a ‘cotton-wool society’?

Saturday 28 October, 14:0015:30, Cinema 1Keynote controversies

Safety has become one of Western society’s fundamental values. Sometimes this is reflected in quite trivial, if annoying ways, summed up in the cliché ‘health and safety gone mad’. More often, it can be deadly serious, such as when draconian legislation with the claimed goal of keeping us safe threatens much-cherished liberties. The desire to increase safety has become a key factor driving both the outlook of individuals and the regulation of every aspect of our lives.

But what are the consequences when almost every area of life is presented as a potential threat to our safety? We face real threats, of course, but how should we respond? Whenever there is another jihadi terrorist outrage, whether in Borough Market or Barcelona, there is an understandable tendency for policymakers to set in place ever more procedures to keep citizens safe. This can often lead to a stand-off between security and civil liberties, with freedom regularly losing out. Whenever there is a tragic disaster involving loss of life, whether natural or man-made, the public debate is framed in the narrative of ‘never again’ and there is a desire to point the finger of blame at anyone who may have jeopardised people’s safety.

While it may be fair enough to ask who is responsible in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, there are also many situations where risks were unforeseen or simply out of our control. Yet the British Medical Journal, for example, bans the word ‘accident’, arguing that even hurricanes, earthquakes and avalanches are often predictable events that the authorities could warn us to avoid. Is there a danger that safety – as an end – can distort how we address challenges by constantly demanding that something – anything – must be done to keep us safe?

Some commentators warn that if we adopt the ‘better safe than sorry’ dictum, it merely heightens perceptions of risk and reinforces cultural assumptions about human vulnerability. For example, adults now go to extreme lengths to keep children safe. But with young people’s freedom to travel and play ever more limited, there are now concerns about ‘cotton wool’ kids being unable to develop a sense of independence, their horizons inevitably narrowed. Safeguarding has become the top priority in every organisation and the child–protection industry actively encourages children to see potential danger everywhere – to the point where important relationships between adults and children can be undermined. With children growing up in such an environment, could the rise of demands for ‘safe spaces’ in universities be, in part, a product of growing up under constant protection?

The ‘safety first’ outlook, allegedly designed to keep us safe by imagining the worst, seems in fact to add to a sense of existential insecurity. Catastrophising about the dangers of the world – always anticipating the worst possible outcomes to any number of situations – can mean over-reacting, especially in the fields of science, health and technology. This can mean that we demand absolute certainty from science when, in reality, such guarantees can rarely be given. We demand that regulation should be implemented when a risk is identified but is, as yet, unproven. Some worry this means scaremongering about theoretical risks: we are constantly warned about things that might harm us, whether it is alcohol or sugar, mobile phone radiation or the latest disease outbreak. During the last major flu outbreak, in 2009, the head of the World Health Organization declared: ‘All of humanity is under threat.’

Has safety become an aim in itself, divorced from a common-sense assessment of risk? Does the desire to regulate away danger at all costs undermine individual freedom and philosophically endanger a commitment to scientific evidence? Is it time to confront the dangers of our ‘safety first’ society?