What's Tony Thinking

Why Has “Safety” Become Such a Big Deal?


Let’s start with a disclaimer. This is not about the pandemic. I am not suggesting that any of us should blow off pandemic pre-cautions like wearing masks, hand-washing and social distancing. Keep it up!

That said, am I the only one who has noticed that “safe” and “safety” are (quite apart from the pandemic) invoked increasingly often? Like all the time. “Be safe.” “This is a safe space.” “We want you to feel safe.”

There are the “helicopter parents,” unrelenting in their anxious vigilance of their off-spring. Security systems that allow you to monitor your home, and fido, 24/7. Classrooms are judged “safe” or “unsafe” based on the language used and books read. “Safe spaces” are both sought and promised every time we turn around. Oh, and don’t get me started on children’s car seats. It would be easier to wedge them into a suit of armor!

As you can perhaps tell, I am a bit of a skeptic with respect to some of this. It sometimes seem a little overdone, extreme. Something would be wrong in a society of absolute safety (one of the points of the novel Watership Down).

That said, whenever I lead groups or programs in churches I do try to make them “safe space.” I want participants to be able to feel they are safe to express their questions and ideas without having someone come down on them or dismiss them.

But I came to new insights about what I think of as our heightened “safety” sensitivity as I read the chapter on social media in Yuval Levin’s book, “A Time To Build,” a new book which I mentioned here last week.

Levin’s chapter on social media is titled, “The Informality Machine.” He builds on his overall thesis that our institutions have declined as they have morphed from “formative” to “performative” in nature. What’s that mean?

Donald Trump would be Exhibit A. In office, he was not formed by the institution of the presidency, by its institutional norms or responsibilities. From the get-go to the bitter end he treated the presidency as a personal platform for gaining attention, for his performance on the national stage.

While Donald Trump provides an excellent example of Levin’s thesis, he has no corner on this phenomenon. In nearly every field of endeavor, including the church, individuals treat a position less as a set of responsibilities and constraints (a vocation) and more as a platform for performance and garnering attention.

When Levin turns to social media he notes, as many before him have, that though social media giants like Facebook claim their mission is “creating community,” what they offer is quick digital connection, but not real relationship or actual intimacy. We may be more “connected” than ever — and simultaneously more isolated.

Here’s how Levin’s argument clued me in to one reason why “safety” may have become a preoccupation, especially it seems for people in younger generations. Social media, Levin notes, intentionally blurs the lines between pubic and private, between inside (think “safe” inner circle) and outside (the whole damn world), as well as between formal (situations of some gravity and sensitivity in which restraint and decorum serve to protect us) and informality (let it all hang out). I would add the line between friendship and marketing to Levin’s blurred categories.

Perhaps the generations that have grown up with and been weaned on social media feel a heightened concern about safety, in part, because in that realm or space there are no lines, no boundaries, or distinctions or manners (manners? what are those?). You may find, you may even offer up, the most intimate details of your personal life to a world of strangers and lurkers. You can be “outed,” “cancelled,” trolled,” “shamed” or “defamed” in a fricking viral instant.

Here’s Levin:

“All of this results in a blurring of boundaries. Not only are the boundaries between public and private effectively erased in the realm of social media, but so are the boundaries between inside and out — that is between the relative security of the inner lives of our institutions and the wilderness of popular culture.”

No wonder people don’t feel “safe.” How could you feel safe if there’s a camera on your every move, a mic catching every word? That doesn’t sound remotely “safe.” In the name of ersatz “community” and “bringing people together” and “helping people to connect,” we’ve created a social world for which the word “unsafe” doesn’t get half of it.

Other factors, of course, are in play here, contributing to our anxiety and a pre-occupation with safety, but social media have changed life and society in fundamental ways we don’t really yet understand.



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