On the true nature, and danger, of safetyism


Commentators and culture warriors have popularized the term “snowflake” in recent years to describe the people, mostly younger Americans, who demand “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” to protect them from the harm of “microaggressions” and “cultural appropriation.” Just last week, a controversy erupted at Yale Law School because a Native American student who belongs to the conservative Federalist Society sent a house party invitation that referred to the dwelling as a “trap house.” Other law students suspected this might be racist somehow, partly because the source was a Federalist Society student and partly because the party would feature fried chicken. They turned to the administration for help, and the administration attempted to extract an apology from the “offending” party host.

At first glance, the injured students appear to be classic snowflakes and the incident a consequence of what psychologist Jonathan Haidt and civil rights attorney Gregory Lukianoff have termed “safetyism.” America’s shift toward a culture in which the sacred value of safety trumps other practical and moral considerations, they say, has led to child-rearing practices that “prepare the road for the child” rather than “preparing the child for the road.” Instead of building character we build massive bureaucracies to deal with all the complaints that we’ve taught young people to emit at the first sign of discomfort, which they conflate with peril.

On this understanding, parents and schools should have prepared these students to sort things out themselves. Perhaps the offended students could have thicker skin and get over it, or else approach the email’s author and have it out with him face-to-face. We should demand, in other words, that elite law students handle their feelings and their problems less litigiously.

The mistake in this interpretation seems obvious to me: The law students involved are not so fragile. The withdrawal of good faith to the email’s author was deliberate. These “snowflakes” did somehow manage to survive the meritocratic gauntlet leading to Yale Law School, after all. Indeed, it’s notable that most so-called snowflakes accumulate not in society’s quiet valleys where we might expect to find gentler souls genuinely struggling to cope with conflict, but rather atop the peaks of elite institutions to which our most aggressive strivers have clawed their way. These students seem less concerned with their safety than with inflicting damage against potential rivals. Yale Federalist Society members rise to places like the Supreme Court, and an official complaint entered or reprimand elicited now may be political fodder later.

“The mistake in this interpretation seems obvious to me: The law students involved are not so fragile.”

In a society where safety is the highest value, people will discover that asserting a claim of unsafety is the most effective way to coopt institutional and state power. Authorities will not only gravitate toward actions that minimize risk, but also run away from making decisions of their own lest the power of victimhood be turned on them. In a culture without shared values beyond “avoid hurt,” risks become impossible to assess or accept against a claim that someone may be harmed, sapping our appetite for exercising judgment in the face of inevitable tragedy and loss. Thus, the safety imperative undermines conservatism and the common good not because it advances some “woke” agenda, but because it enforces through legal and social concepts of liability an absolute preference for harm reduction over the many other values—from liberty and fairness to tradition and hierarchy—that human flourishing requires as well.

As this safety imperative pervades so many institutions, it forms our character as individuals, and shapes our culture. The fragility of college graduates, which is easy to laugh at and dismiss, is not the worst problem safetyism produces. The worst problem it produces is timidity, which is widespread, endemic, and institutionalized. The evidence for this can be found across the nation, from decades of declining business starts, to the way some of the largest and most successful companies sit on cash rather than invest, to the sudden enthusiasm for censorship—a panic about protecting people from supposedly harmful ideas.

And of course, it’s closer to home, too. The safety imperative is evident in the emerging “capstone” model of marriage, where people delay marriage beyond those first years when they are merely finding their footing in the labor market, avoiding any potential early test of the “for poorer” vow. Perhaps it contributes to declining birth rates, as parents try to concentrate resources into the 1.7 children they have. It informs helicopter parenting, which—if my experience is any indication—is a contagion of caution among parents afraid to lose face with one another. And so, no parent risks that an unminded or lightly minded child does something injurious or merely embarrassing. The safety imperative ends up consuming entrepreneurs, parents, lovers, and even childhood itself.

* * *

America’s choice of safety as its sacred value should not be surprising. A diverse nation with many competing worldviews and visions will tend to have a culture that emphasizes what is common to all. Rapid secularization, meanwhile, erodes the salience of values that transcend death itself, leaving a cultural tilt toward health and safety, along utilitarian lines. The question “what’s worse than death or injury?” has fairly common answers in a culture soaked in a Judeo-Christian ethic. It has fewer in ours. In the summer of 2020, when progressives insisted that Black Lives Matter protestors gathering in massive groups were right to defy COVID-19 restrictions, they did not assert their deeply held value of “anti-racism” (perhaps the closest thing on the American left to a religious belief) as more important than public health concerns; they declared that racism was a public health concern of the highest order.

The obsession with safety is also, of course, a product of America’s existing prosperity. Billionaires can and do spend an inordinate amount of time placing hedges to insure against the longest of long-tail risks, like buying citizenship in New Zealand, or setting up survival properties over easily accessible aquifers. America is not a nation of billionaires, but we are a nation where nobody has to starve, and where the upper middle class that sets the cultural agenda enjoys a physical and financial security unprecedented in human history. It’s natural that a rich nation should be tempted towards contentment and experience an extreme form of “loss aversion” that places much greater weight on the downside of risk than on the potential reward.

In the pandemic era, we can no longer pretend that the safety imperative is just an elaborate bloodsport of manners among the over-primped elite. The ideology is present in irrational demands from some segments of the population to eliminate COVID risk entirely and in the sense of entitlement that one’s own fears provide a legitimate basis for bringing the weight of authority down on others who would rather get on with their lives. But this persists only because it works—because the ideology is equally present in the scrambling bureaucratic response to do something, anything that might appease these demands of protection regardless of their obvious inefficacy. The quintessential manifestation is the custom, and in some cases diktat, of walking into a restaurant with a mask, then removing it once seated, while being served by masked waitstaff.

“In the pandemic era, we can no longer pretend that the safety imperative is just an elaborate bloodsport of manners among the over-primped elite.”

The superintendent of my local school district frequently sends emails about activities in our schools, always including the same sentence: “As a weekly reminder, please know that [our school district] will continue to adhere to the guidelines of the CDC, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) and the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) in our layered approach to mitigating the risk of spread of COVID-19 in our schools.” I’ve come to think of this sentence as the perfect summation of the safety imperative. In these lines, my superintendent has produced a masterpiece of rhetoric. The unmentioned subject is, of course, the school district’s policy on masking young children, and occasionally quarantining some of them. It says none of this directly because avoidance of responsibility is the purpose.

The sentence was mightily effective on me. This past summer, as the CDC’s mask guidance started to retighten, I embarked upon a campaign as the Importunate Father. I kindly but frequently reminded the head of the district that there was no good evidence that masks were an important intervention for children, that most peer nations never masked school children or had ceased doing so already, that the World Health Organization recommended against it. Like the widow of Luke 18, I imagined my pleas would eventually soften the heart of the man in charge. But no personal response came. By the third time I read the “weekly reminder,” I gave up hope and ceased writing altogether.

“We will continue to adhere to the guidelines of the CDC… NYSED…NYSDOH…” We’re not going to get into whether the guidelines make sense, or whether they’re practical. We’re just going to refer you to unelected authorities. Expressing yourself on this topic to the people nominally in charge of this institution is utterly futile, so please desist. This announcement, and this policy, isn’t really about protecting kids from the dangers of COVID. It’s about protecting the superintendent from complaints, protest, or worse—lawsuits. The buck doesn’t stop here.

* * *

The district has succeeded in obscuring totally the role of any human being in policy. The superintendent refers to the entire chain of authority, the local and state departments of health, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Their guidelines, in turn, are mystified as mere commandments from “the science.” “A lot of what you’re seeing as attacks on me quite frankly are attacks on science,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, “because all of the things I have spoken about from the very beginning have been fundamentally based on science.” Other public health authorities, like those in the United Kingdom or Denmark, eventually settled on a legible goal for ending the state of exception during the pandemic, delegating risk management down to institutions and individuals themselves. And policymakers in these countries took the risk of public ire if the outcome was unacceptable. The United Kingdom has experienced some surges in cases, but none that spelled real political peril for the government.

The uniquely American character of the safety imperative, especially among the governing class, suggests that it is profoundly shaped by the concept of liability and the belief that disputes should be adjudicated by expert-supplied evidence. Perhaps this idea of how liability and trials work is still regnant in the mind of our leaders and our culture from the days of the seemingly unstoppable rise of civil jury trials for defective products, applied now to both assumptions about formal legal liability and the workings of the more pervasive court of public opinion. Certainly, this mentality seems to a culprit in the phenomenon of masking waitstaff. Everyone—owners, and workers—becomes just a little more protected, not from COVID necessarily, but from a lawsuit, or at least from the accusation that their own choices led somehow to an infection somewhere.

“The uniquely American character of the safety imperative, especially among the governing class, suggests that it is profoundly shaped by the concept of liability and the belief that disputes should be adjudicated by expert-supplied evidence.”

In the United States, mainstream media institutions have treated governors like Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott as renegades partly because they are so visibly taking responsibility for policies on masking and vaccines in their states. They loudly depart from guidelines issued from the federal government; flashing their own judgment to the public makes them a target. Conversely, governors who defer to guidelines from above—notionally from “science” itself—receive absolution regardless of outcome. Their per-capita death rates may look no different, or even worse, but they are held to govern well by exercising judgment least.

For those who hold administrative power, the safety imperative as an inculcated instinct, coupled with the perception that the broader population shares that instinct, generates an individual and institutional flight from responsibility, in the name of risk mitigation and liability avoidance. Let me repeat that for clarity, because I don’t want to be misunderstood: our obsession with safety, as it manifests in America in 2021, is only secondarily about the actual avoidance of substantive risk. We can handle the possibility of loss—of the dangers and harms that might befall us. What we cannot handle—what so many of our institutions fail to prepare us for, and are unprepared for themselves—is what to do when those dangers, harms, and losses arrive attached to the names and judgments of other people. Lacking a shared set of values that license risk, it becomes harder for the public to accept the normal tragedies that may result from a decision, and it makes it harder for leaders and policymakers to justify decisions that include risk. The safety imperative gets carried along by, while amplifying, the powerful force of bureaucratic self-preservation.

One can even see this dynamic at work in the Yale Law School contretemps. Administrators, debilitated by utilitarianism, are easy marks for claims of even minor “harm” and offense given by students. Title IX and Title VII civil rights laws also surely play a role in their sensitivity to complaints about racism on campus. But nothing so bold as explicit discipline was ventured—after all, the author of the supposedly offensive email was of a “protected class” too! So instead, the dean drafted an apology letter that the email’s author could sign to mollify his critics and pressured him to sign it with vague references to his reputation. Now, it’s easy to see this as a tyrannical, mob-like threat—and perhaps it was. But just as likely, it was a passive-aggressive form of coercion by an authority who fears pronouncing directly on the substance of the controversy. “I could have written you an email that said, ‘This is wrong’,” the Dean explained to the author. But he didn’t. “Because the university does things differently.” Instead, in the absence of shared values, administrators just hoped to “nip this in the bud” by inducing an apology—that is, an acceptance of liability—however insincere. Authority wielded without conviction and with this level of timidity will always appear as treacherous.

Somewhat speculatively, I would suggest that the character of the internet and the rise of social media have compounded the problem by creating a permanent record that exists primarily to damn us—our lives have become unending depositions. This makes it harder for all but the most shameless to overcome past misdeeds or missteps of inevitably fallible judgment. Google makes us easier to disqualify for opportunity, and so we naturally clam up and try to defer responsibility to others while under the watchful eye of the search bar. Do you want to be the superintendent whose school district got sued for a case of COVID? Probably not.

* * *

The safety imperative is a child of liberalism, and it is here Jonathan Haidt’s insights are most useful. Haidt holds out that liberals do not recognize the moral weight of loyalty, authority, and sanctity, and instead focus almost entirely on moral issues connected to care and fairness. “On issue after issue, it’s as though liberals are trying to help a subset of bees (which really does need help) even if doing so damages the hive,” he writes in The Righteous Mind. “Such ‘reforms’ may lower the overall welfare of a society, and sometimes they even hurt the very victims liberals were trying to help.”

With character-forming institutions now dominated by liberals, America is increasingly in the hands of a leadership class that has internalized the timidity and unwillingness to take responsibility for risks, along with the inevitable accompanying harms. Moral demands that spring from loyalty and sanctity license risk and sacrifice. Having rejected these outright, liberals are left defending a partly imagined “liberal world order” where all good things go together, no one has to be harmed, and therefore nobody faces tradeoffs.

But the problem of governance is that the world doesn’t run like a clock, where minor adjustments repair and tune a mechanism that is designed to work one way forever. The post-Cold War order is not turning out as expected. Our trade policies with China had larger and more concentrated costs at home—in jobs, even in life expectancy—than anyone formulating these policies anticipated. They also had larger geopolitical costs, such as empowering rather than reforming or obsolescing an authoritarian Chinese Communist Party.

“Turning back from the safety imperative would require leaders to own their judgments and the consequences, and—just as important—it would require a people formed to accept that life has tragedies in it because fallible human judgment meets reality.”

At home, endless shelves of federal regulation on labor, land use, and the environment were designed for challenges that no longer exist or have been transformed. Lobby groups and incumbent interests sit ready to defend the status quo these regulations created. Any self-governing republic worthy of the name must summon the courage to examine, revise, and reform in light of reality. But this naturally will disturb “a subset of bees.” Such a project will require controversial and creative risk-taking.

Turning back from the safety imperative would require leaders to own their judgments and the consequences, and—just as important—it would require a people formed to accept that life has tragedies in it because fallible human judgment meets reality. It would require institutions that inculcate values other than self-preservation and “fair” administration. This reversal would license us—children, parents, civic leaders, and statesmen—to face the thrilling, meaningful, and life-affirming project of meeting challenges with our honor, and reap for the nation huge rewards in the end.

Michael Brendan Dougherty
Michael Brendan Dougherty is a senior writer at National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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