Safetyism Is Unsafe

During the second half of the twentieth century, concentrated efforts were made to make the world safer for children, drivers, and vulnerable people. All fifty states passed safety belt laws. Sharp objects were removed from homes and day care facilities. Toys and playgrounds became softer.

It worked. Death rates for children declined steadily. Over the first two decades of the twenty-first century, however, “safety” has broadened to include emotional safety and this broader understanding of safety has become a fundamental value and ideal. Especially on university campuses, young people protest triggers – controversial speakers, difficult topics, the use of the wrong pronoun – that make them feel unsafe.[1]

We have moved from a legitimate concern for safety to an agitated ideology of safetyism.

The terror is real, but it arises from the false assumption that people wilt at the slightest danger. Even victims of violence and those who suffer from PTSD are antifragile. Most “report becoming stronger, or better in some way, after suffering through a traumatic experience.”

Besides, the effort to avoid triggers of trauma is counter-therapeutic: “Avoiding triggers is a symptom of PTSD, not a treatment for it.” To overcome trauma and become stronger, one must be exposed to traumatic memories in a controlled, gradual, systematic form, “until their capacity to trigger distress diminishes.”[2]

Safetyism keeps young people in a state of perpetual immaturity. When we equate “emotional discomfort with physical danger,” we encourage “people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences that they need in order to become strong and healthy.” Safetyism creates a destructive feed-back loop: “kids become more fragile and less resistant, which signals to adults that they need more protection, which makes them even more fragile and less resilient.”[3]

Protecting children from dangerous experiences prevents them from “opportunities to learn skills, independence, and risk assessment.” Overprotectiveness is itself a danger. If we shield our kids from all possible pain, failure, and disappointment, we “stunt their growth and deprive them of the experiences they need to become successful and functional adults.”[4]

Why did this happen? Psychologist Jean Twenge has discovered a sharp break in the Millennial generation after 1995. The generation raised with iPhones and social media, iGen, experiences higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide than earlier Millennials. Members of this group are “obsessed with safety” including emotional safety.[5] They believe “one should be safe not just from car accidents and sexual assault but from people who disagree with you.”[6]

The invention of social media correlates with the rise of this obsession with emotional safety. Facebook took off among middle school and high school students after 2007 when the first iPhone was introduced. Between 2007 and 2012, “the social life of the average American teen changed substantially.”[7]

Social media correlates with some positive trends. Members of iGen smoke and drink less, and wait longer to have sex. They form new, flexible forms of social interaction. But the negative effects are notable. Children grow up more slowly than they did in the past. Events that once marked the transition to adulthood – having a job, driving a car, dating – happen later. As Twenge says, they are “physically safer than ever, yet they are more mentally vulnerable.”[8]

There are significant statistical correlations between rises in teen anxiety, depression, and suicide and two other factors: use of electronic devices and watching TV. Other activities were inversely correlated with teen depression: “sports and other forms of exercise, attending religious services, reading books and other print media, in-person social interactions, and doing homework.”[9]

By distracting us from common pursuits, devices and social media weaken our “ultrasocial” nature. Human beings “are able to work together in large groups, with a clear division of labor. Humans love teams, team sports, synchronized movements, and anything else that gives us the feeling of ‘one for all, and all for one.’”[10] Social media creates certain kinds of networks that would not be possible otherwise, but it cannot satisfy our social desires in the same way.

Parenting is a crucial factor in the establishment of safetyism. For several decades, many parents have been fearful and overprotective, treating children as if they needed constant supervision and protection. A decades-long crime wave began in the U.S. in the 1960s and continued to the early 1990s.

Then crime declined, dramatically. By 2013, “the murder rate dropped to the same level it had been at sixty years earlier.” Yet the crime wave left a psychological effect on parents; the fear of crime did not decline as crime declined.

As a result, “American parenting is now wildly out of sync with the actual risk that strangers pose to children.” Seat belts, safety helmets, a decline in smoking, and other changes have led to a 48% drop in deaths from injuries and accidents for children between 5 and 14 during the decades from 1960-1990. Instead of relaxing, parents upped the ante: “If focusing on big threats produces such dividends, why not go further and make childhood as close to perfectly safe as possible?”[11]

Public institutions give the force of law to overprotective parenting: “Pressures from other parents, from schools, and even from laws . . . push parents to be more protective than they would like to be.” Parents are expected to prepare for the worst possible outcomes, and are treated as bad parents if they fail to do this. Some parents “who reject overparenting and give their kids more freedom can actually be arrested.”[12]

Safetyism is not merely an ideology for the young. It has increasingly infiltrated the details of our lives.[13] When YouTube deletes a video containing what is judges misinformation, it assures the person who posted the video, “It’s important to us that YouTube is a safe place for all.”

Bureaucracies have vested interests in the expansion of safetyism. They are “very much in the business of tending and feeding the narratives that justify their existence.” Since they compete for funds, each bureaucracy must “make a maximal case for the urgency of its mission, hence the necessity of its expansion.”

'There is thus a symbiotic relationship between safetyism and the expansion of government authority. In effect, the system is designed to allow experts to rule “citizens conceived as fragile incompetents.”

Public health officials are spokesmen for safety and claim “authority to sweep aside whole domains of human activity as reckless, and therefore illegitimate.” Because safety is treated as a moral absolute, risky behavior is regarded not merely as dangerous but as wrong. Safetyism has “displaced other moral sensibilities that might offer some resistance.”[14]

During the pandemic, media and the health bureaucracy have formed another feedback loop: “the voices of the safety-industrial complex seem to defer automatically to the arbiters of high-prestige opinion, who are fully invested these days in political warfare against an avatar of evil, and against the half of the population who voted for him.” Safetyism turns into a blunt political instrument, and public health officials seem “less concerned with the health of the whole populace than with drawing boundaries between the good people and the bad people.”[15]

Safetyism has become a dominant value of contemporary technology.[16] The drive toward total automation is also a drive toward absolute safety. Matthew B. Crawford paints a grim dystopian portrait of a world automated by safety devices: “As the space for intelligent human action gets colonized by machines, our intelligence erodes, leading to demands for further automation.”

Intelligence here means “bodily skills, cognitive skills, and ethical skills, for they are bound up together.” In an automated world, “it is we who are being automated, in the sense that we are vacated of that existential involvement that distinguishes human action from mere dumb events.”[17]

As intelligence in this complex sense erodes, so does our human capacity for spiritedness. In Crawford’s view, “the opacity of the automation logic both encourages and requires a certain disposition of character in the operator, which we might call spiritlessness.”

But there are emergencies when “spiritedness is the very quality you want . . . a readiness to take charge.” When automated systems fail, pilots need to be assertive in overriding them. That is possible only “if one has confidence – not only in one’s skills, but in one’s understanding of what is going on, and how to fix it.” Automation drains these very qualities; instead of assertiveness, it trains us in deference; instead of confidence, it obscures the inner workings of the machine. Instead of wielding the machine, we “feel ourselves responsible to them, afraid to be wrong in their presence, and therefore reluctant to challenge them.”

Training by automation makes us less equipped to do the things we need to do when circumstances call for it. Automation drains us of spiritedness.[18] Automated safetyism regards the spirited man as a danger, “maladaptive”: “a confident human individual . . . may appear as a bug in the system,” not just a danger to the smooth functioning of the machine, but evil.

Spiritedness is dangerous, and the goal is to eliminate danger. A regime of safetyism prefers men without chests, men without souls. And so we die as men before our bodies died, while those possessed with the noonday demon of acedia fit the automated system, hand in glove, as if the best are those who lack all conviction.

No word was used more frequently during the pandemic than “safety.” Governments issued “safer at home” orders. “Be safe” replaced “goodbye” as a parting benediction. "Out of an abundance of caution" because one of the most-used phrases in the English language.

We donned masks in the interests of safety. We worried over the safety of children in schools, the safety of crowds at concerts or games, the safety of eating at a restaurant, the safety of the subway and the Safeway. Safety became the supreme value, safetyism the reigning ideology.

Applied to health care, safetyism undermines its aims. We cannot protect ourselves from exposure to all pathogens and every risk of infection. Viruses are ubiquitous. And trying to protect ourselves can make us more susceptible to disease.

Animals raised in germ-free environments, writes Rene Dubos, “appear essentially normal and are able to reproduce themselves for several consecutive generations,” but they are “highly susceptible to the common ubiquitous microbes” and “commonly develop severe infections, of which they die, as soon as they are placed in the open world.”[19]

Humans too need to confront pathogens, or our immune systems will atrophy. Our organs do not develop as they should without this battle with microbial enemies. Health, Dubos argued, is adaptation to environment, including environmental dangers. An aseptic world is “dangerous in the long run, by rendering the too-well-isolated individual unable to survive in any world except that in which it has been raised.”[20]  

In health care, as in parenting, education, and driving, safetyism is unsafe.

[1] Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (Penguin, 2019).

[2] Richard McNally, quoted in Lukianoff and Haidt, Coddling, 9.

[3] Lukianoff and Haidt, Coddling, 30.

[4] Lukianoff and Haidt, Coddling, 170.

[5] Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us (Atria Books, 2018) 3.

[6] Twenge, iGen, 154.

[7] Lukianoff and Haidt, Coddling, 147.

[8] Twenge, iGen, 3.

[9] Lukianoff and Haidt, Coddling, 152.

[10] Lukianoff and Haidt, Coddling, 153.

[11] Lukianoff and Haidt, Coddling, 167-169.

[12] Lukianoff and Haidt, Coddling, 171. In New Albany, Ohio, the police chief “advises that children should not be allowed outside without supervision until the age of 16” (171-172).

[13] Andrew Sullivan, “We All Live on Campus Now,” New York Magazine, February 9, 2018, available at

[14] Matthew B. Crawford, “The danger of safetyism,” UnHerd, May 15, 2020. Safetyism has a class dimension, being more prevalent among “the meritocrats who staff the managerial layer of society.” The knowledge economy trains its labors to defer to expert authority,” since “the basic currency of this economy is epistemic prestige.” Hence the ubiquitous use of the honorific descriptor, “smart.” Among those who work in the “economy of things,” there is “greater skepticism toward experts . . . and less readiness to accept the adjustment of social norms by fiat,” whether that involves novel pronouns for recently-invented genders or wearing masks.

[15] Crawford suggests there are affinities between safetyism and political correctness. Play communities, full of risk-taking behavior that tests physical limits, confront physical reality in a direct way. A broken bone “strengthen[s] the reality principle in a person’s psyche.” Political correctness cushions direct contact with reality, and safetyism gives moral justification to this physical cowardice. As long as you do not bump into reality, you can make yourself believe reality is plastic, flexible enough to bow to your passing whims.

[16] Crawford, Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road (William Morrow, 2020) 86.

[17] Crawford, Why We Drive, 122.

[18] Crawford, Why We Drive, 123, 125.

[19] Dubos, Mirage of Health: Utopias, Progress, and Biological Change (Rutgers University Press, [1959] 1987) 41.

[20] Dubos, Mirage of Health, 42.

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