Culture

Obsessive fear of risk is killing personal responsibility

BY David Butterfield   /  21 August 2017

“What idiocy!” – the Remainers keep warbling – “what sheer stupidity to vote for Brexit without knowing what’s going to happen!”

Relax, dear reader of Reaction, this isn’t going to be a political screed. Instead, I want to explore the absurd thinking behind this clockwork complaint: the people’s decision is vitiated by and ridiculed for its lack of picture-perfect providence. This criticism is jaw-droppingly thick – and prompts the crucial question: are these would-be clairvoyants deluded about their own powers of prophesy or deceived about the world they live in? The answer, quite clearly, is both.

The world, in reality, is a glorious nexus of inscrutable uncertainties. For all the intricate modelling of scientists and pontification of experts, our daily lives teem with unpredictability. Nothing in our future can be precisely delineated and dissected. Why, then, when there are so many weighty things to worry about, has our fear of taking calculated risks become so debilitatingly acute?

Risk – action without security – is a fundamental aspect of being human: we must constantly weigh the probability of undesired losses against potential gains. But this is not instinctive. Every baby, as the fearless escapades of my fourteen-monther reveal in technicolour, is powered by the whirring cogs of curiosity and experiment. It’s trial and error that set the framework for human lives: risk aversion is learned behaviour, its degree a personal response to the challenges of life.

But we live in an increasingly – and at times ludicrously – risk-averse society. I’m not talking about securing the essential and indisputable safeties, especially in construction, travel and disaster planning, where such strictures save lives. Instead, I worry about the small-scale absurdities that we increasingly face.

Yes, you’ve heard this before: graduating students can’t throw their mortar boards; kites can’t be flown; some promenade benches can’t face the sea; cobbled streets are torn up as trip hazards. Even this year’s World Shin-kicking Championships, hosted each June by the 400-year-old Cotswold Olimpicks, were cancelled, along with the rest of the festivities, beneath overbearing health and safety pressures.

These minor matters may be laughable in isolation, but taken together they reflect a much profounder, and perverser, problem. The more that supposedly well-meaning bodies restrict our options, the more our capacity to profit from independent risk is closed down. In Britain, this diminution of personal autonomy is not just distressing, it’s starkly at odds with our nation’s deep-seated admiration for risk-taking – in music, sport, careers, and even relationships. No-one doubts that Health and Safety measures are of the utmost necessity in matters of mortal danger; nor does anyone object to protecting those who cannot protect themselves. But the gradual incursion of preventative measures has moved from the momentous and mandatory to the impossibly trivial. The previously mundane is now viewed as a minefield of potential danger.

With common sense disregarded as the rarest of commodities, smugly worded warning signs have vastly expanded their territory. A portion of these do an essential job, but the pathetic, often pointless proliferation of their kind has introduced the graver and more palpable risk of defacing beautiful spaces.

There is a price to pay in all this: the grim parade of high-vis jackets to the dread rhythm of Risk Assessment Exercises distracts from the ineluctable reality of personal responsibility. What’s worse, in contrast to our society’s obsession with diversity, the blanket imposition of such rules imposes artificial uniformity.

Left to our own devices, we would doubtless have in each sphere a spectrum of sites to choose from, ranging from nigh-on-zero to near-maximal risk: some pubs could and would allow smoking, some lakes swimming, some offices heavy lifting. There would be a mature and elegant simplicity in countenancing opt-in spaces where people could willingly pursue their own (legal) pleasures. Take alcohol, for instance, which of course carries all sorts of genuine risks. But that’s precisely what brings the frisson of uncertainty to social gatherings. It’s therefore a fillip to fitness but a blow to bonhomie that, for probably the first time in documented history, a quarter of 18-25 year olds in the UK are now teetotal.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that a generation so regularly bombarded with the distorted view of the wider world as something to fear, abhor and avoid has become unduly risk-averse. Public activity seems to portend myriad dangers: if it’s not the exaggerated risk of being attacked physically or verbally, the choice to let your hair down may be punished by photographic evidence turning up online.

Most institutions have pruned back risk-taking at work to protect themselves from the looming threat of compensation culture lawsuits. The infantile misconception that every misfortune occurs through human fault, combined with the (often self-righteous) belief that the fault is not one’s own, gives the green light for flinging blame at others.

But is the menace of ever more petty and pedantic litigation as real as corporate bodies suppose? Or is their own life made easier by paring back individual autonomy? Corporate legislation seems more about corporate risk aversion – of bad headlines from far-fetched lawsuits – rather than a genuine worry about risks to others.

Post-Brexit Britain we should restore some common sense here: a good part of society would celebrate institutions that advocate personal responsibility and arrest the evaporation of autonomy.

The profound problems of replacing personal accountability with corporate responsibility were seen in the banking crises of 2007, now a decade in our rear-view mirror. They also exist on a smaller scale – on the high street, in the workplace, across the community.

To take a narrow but telling example, litter blights most of Britain’s urban environments not because of ignorance or laziness but because of a dwindling sense of personal responsibility for one’s surroundings. If someone else is tasked with keeping the place clean, why take pride in the work of others?

We need to revisit the risk register where it matters. Education, for instance, should be the crucible of risk-taking, where new ideas, attitudes and activities are tried out. It’s the duty of all such institutions to support an environment of calculated jeopardy: the intellect advances with leaps of faith into foreign and challenging territories. sapere aude – dare to be wise – is not a tag that died with Horace: it takes real boldness to construct your own view of the world. Human error shouldn’t be hidden as an embarrassment but welcomed as a route to improvement via a lesson learned.

Sport too – including its dangers and disappointments – should be an essential rite of passage in growing up. Contact sport, now a doom-laden dodgeball for many schools, should play an especially prominent role. Indeed, not enough is said about the salutary shock of a high-speed ball to the face or studs to the near-frostbitten hand. Risk pricks pomposity. If – as happens disconcertingly often – I walk into a bollard when reading on the move, the fault is mine alone, not reprehensible street planning. If I slip when running for a train, I rollock my timekeeping not the station’s surface.

And let’s not suppose that every risk dices with danger. Some create safer behaviour: to risk going walking without a map ensures keener attention to any surrounding hazards; not reducing the excess on a hire car intensifies focus on the road.

Yet when all personal risk is airbrushed out of life, two distinct but unfortunate consequences follow: people either choose not to test and challenge their immediate limitations, or, to break free from this fabricated straitjacket, they undertake absurdly risky and irrational activities. It’s telling and tragic that wildly escapist ventures such as climbing cranes, surfing trains and jumping off buildings while on fire have burgeoning cult followings.

Remarkably, we have come full circle: risk-taking now needs its own safe space. Is it any surprise that the great outdoors have an ever greater allure? Second only to their sheer beauty is the total control they allow over personal jeopardy. Once many miles from civilisation and signage, in forest or on mountain, you roam on your own terms and at your own risk. The sole caveat is deliciously simple: you alone are responsible for every step you take.

Life thrives on careful speculation and calculated gambles: a life of minimised risk is one of unfulfilled potential. Fortune does indeed favour the brave – if not the foolhardy. Let’s stop acting as though the world owes us something and instead embrace whatever risks we each choose. But let’s also promise not to complain if our decisions prove to be absolute shockers.

David Butterfield is a Fellow in Classics at Queens’ College, Cambridge.


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