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

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

Safety has become one of the fundamental values of Western society. Sometimes this is reflected in trivial, if annoying, regulations, summed up in the cliché ‘health and safety gone mad’. More seriously, the preoccupation with safety may lead to draconian legislation, claiming to increase security by curtailing cherished liberties. The quest for greater safety has become a driving force in both the outlook of individuals and in the governance of society.

It is understandable that, in response to a catastrophe like the Grenfell Tower fire or jihadi terrorist incidents, there should be a public concern to identify those responsible and to take appropriate steps to prevent such incidents. Whenever there is a tragic disaster involving loss of life, whether natural or man-made, the public debate is framed by 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. There is also a tendency to demand ever higher levels of security, from surveillance to internet censorship, leading to further restrictions on civil liberties.

But shit happens. There are many situations in which risks cannot be foreseen or controlled. The British Medical Journal may ban the use of the word ‘accident’, but hurricanes, earthquakes and avalanches still occur randomly and threaten human life, even in relatively prosperous societies. Is there a danger that safety becomes an end in itself, distorting how we deal with risks by constantly demanding that something – anything – must be done to keep us safe?

Some commentators warn that following the dictum ‘better safe than sorry’ merely heightens perceptions of risk and reinforces cultural assumptions about human vulnerability. For example, many parents now go to extreme lengths to keep their children safe. But as young people’s freedom to travel and play is increasingly limited, over-protected ‘cotton wool’ kids may be prevented from developing a sense of independence. Safeguarding has become the top priority in every educational and welfare, religious and cultural, leisure and sporting institution. A network of professionals and campaigns encourages children to see potential danger everywhere, undermining any possibility of relations of trust between children and adults. 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, intending to keep us safe by imagining the worst, risks increasing our sense of existential insecurity. Always anticipating catastrophe may mean over-reacting, especially in the fields of science, health and technology. We have become the victims of scaremongering over theoretical risks – from mobile phone radiation or the latest strain of flu, even from familiar foods such as sugar and salt.

Has safety become an aim in itself, divorced from a common-sense assessment of risk? Does the desire to eliminate all danger undermine individual freedom? Is it time to confront the dangers of our ‘safety first’ society?