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  • Dan Connors

Is It Safe?

"The only thing to fear is fear itself" Franklin Delano Roosevelt

“There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance." John Lennon

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Nelson Mandela

The scariest scene of any movie that I've ever seen was in the film Marathon Man. In the movie, the villain, played by Laurence Olivier, tortures Dustin Hoffman's character by confining him to a dentist's chair and mercilessly drilling into his teeth. The only thing Olivier's character says during the entire ordeal is "Is it safe?" Hoffman's character knows nothing, and has to endure this lengthy scene in agony and confusion.

I think about this scene from time to time as I wonder about just how safe we all really are. Not from sadistic Nazi dentists, but from all the things people are telling us to fear and worry about. Consider the following:

- The United States has the largest military budget in the world by far, and yet it has produced very little from its expensive incursions into Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam. And in a hugely interdependent world economy, expensive fighter jets are trumped by oil, microchips, and terrorists with box cutters.

- This country has the largest number of people in prison, and the highest incarceration rate in the world, yet we keep hearing warnings about dangerous criminals that threaten us in the news and from politicians.

- And don't forget that we have the most guns per person of any country in the world (more guns than people!) and yet those guns don't seem to be doing much to keep us safe. We also have the highest gun violence rate of any industrialized country, the most suicide deaths from guns, the most mass shootings, and the most children killed by guns.

- Meanwhile, climate change appears to be the most dangerous looming threat to agriculture and livelihoods, and it still is not taken seriously enough.

I get it. The world is a dangerous place. But something just doesn't feel right about all of this. For all of our expensive protective measures, we still don't feel safe. Fear rules our elections, schools have to do intruder drills, racism and homophobia is again rampant as tribalism paints "others" as dangerous, and way too many people are worrying about their next meal or place to sleep. Places that were once assumed to be safe- churches, schools, movie theaters, shopping malls and workplaces- have all been the sites of notable mass shooting events in the last decade. We can't stay boarded up in our houses forever, but few places feel safe anymore.

There are three large trends that are keeping us from feeling safe, and if we want to improve things, we will have to deal with them somehow.

1- The media and social media benefit by scaring us. It drives their profits. There's something called the acute stress response, or the fight-or-flight syndrome that is a powerful shortcut to getting our attention and motivating us to act. Thousands of years of evolution have made us well attuned to our environment when dangers included bears and wolves. The slightest sensation of danger or fear triggers the acute response and makes us not only pay close attention to the cues, but to share them far and wide with our circle of friends. Social media algorithms are designed specifically to promote posts that provoke anger and fear, even if they are baseless and wrong. The goal is to keep us scrolling and sell advertising.

The same could be said about the mainstream media. "If it bleeds, it leads" has been the motto of print and television journalism for decades. They know that stories about crime, violence, or conflict increase viewership and ratings, while feel-good stories are nice but boring and usually buried at the end of a newscast. It's important to keep informed about what's going on in the world, and all potential threats that could affect us. The problem is that because of the negative bias of news reporting, our model of the world is negatively skewed. We think things are much more dangerous than they really are, and in some cases extreme fears provoke extreme reactions and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For every act of violence on the news at night there are many examples of kindness, diligence, and bravery that don't get reported.

Another problem with the way the media treats crime is blatant bias. Crime involving poor people gets preference because we want to believe that most crime comes from poverty. We are trained to fear poor people and not feel sorry for them if they break the law. Rich people, on the other hand, can commit much more damaging crimes and walk away unscathed. But we like rich people and want to be like them, so we discount white collar crimes as the actions of a few bad apples. The bankers who caused the 2008 financial crisis don't inspire fear, but the teen who breaks into a car does.

2- Advertising motivates us by scaring us. This is most noticeable with political advertising, which has become so hyperbolic these days that the fate of the universe is at risk unless X politician wins his or her election. It has gotten really bad, and both parties are guilty, though Republicans have gone the extra mile in the past decade by spreading disinformation to scare their voters. Advertisers are desperate to get attention, and they will resort to sneaky tricks to get it, including subliminal messaging, sex, peer pressure, celebrity endorsements, and fear of missing out.

To have a functioning democracy, we need political leaders who will be honest with us and inspire us to bigger and better things. Instead, we are getting fear-driven campaigns full of disinformation and the demonization of entire groups that are supposedly to blame for complex problems.

In order to have a functioning economy, we need rational actors who buy and sell the best products at the best prices. Instead we get a race to the bottom as advertisers push us to get the newest and shiniest of everything because our old stuff is obsolete and everybody will judge us if we don't buy what they're selling.

3- There's safety in numbers, but not when individualism rules. Most healthy societies have a social contract that makes safety and security a given. People look out for each other. They share resources and information, and everyone has a feeling of belonging and having a stake in their community.

That community structure has degraded in the past 50 years. We have transitioned into an "every person for themselves" mentality. Don't feel safe? That's your problem, and your responsibility alone. The police won't help you, so you have to carry a gun with you at all times- and the more powerful the better. Feeling sick? You should have taken better care of yourself. And don't expect any help from your neighbors if you can't work or afford to pay your bills.

In the year 2000, Robert Putnam published a remarkable book, "Bowling Alone," that detailed the decline of community organizations, labor unions, churches, and connection with our communities. Community-focused groups like the Optimists and Rotary had declined in membership and that has continued since the book was published. The rise of social media and cell phones has only exacerbated the loss of community, resulting in what the US Surgeon General calls a "loneliness epidemic".

We are all in a race to build our own little castles of safety in a cruel world. This is the biggest reason that we don't feel safe. We don't trust anybody- not the government, not corporations, not those who look or act differently that we do, and lately not even our own relatives with different religious or political views.

Humans are remarkably bad at recognizing and assessing potential risks. While many will feel the need to open carry guns in public, few take care of the potential risks to their health from obesity, alcohol and drug abuse, lack of sleep, or mental illness. People forget to wear sunscreen or text while driving, but they put expensive security systems in their homes. The media goes crazy whenever there is a shark attack, but says nothing about animals that kill more humans every year, such as mosquitoes, ticks, jellyfish, freshwater snails, or dogs.

We are bad at risk assessment because our brains are faulty and we are susceptible to dozens of cognitive biases that cause us to overestimate and underestimate the dangers around us. Because the world around is is far too complex for our brains to comprehend, we rely on shortcuts to make sense of it all. These shortcuts look at past events and make assumptions about future ones, and they are sometimes helpful but sometimes very wrong.

So what's the answer to the question- "Is it safe?" Unfortunately, there is no clear answer. Obviously, nothing is ever 100% safe- bad things can happen anywhere, even with the strongest protections. So we are left with a probability puzzle. How can we maximize the probability of being safe most of the time with the needs to go out in the world and have an active and meaningful life? The medical field for instance is full of trade-offs and probabilities that surgeries, vaccines, or drugs may help but may also have side effects. There are risk/benefit tradeoffs everywhere. Finding the right balance is the way to maximize happiness and minimize fear.

We must stop wasting so much energy on our fears, most of which will never come to pass and focus on the things that we can do something about, like our health, our families, and our environment. And we must also come to grips that sometimes bad things will happen, no matter how much preparation we do. Use those bad things to learn important lessons and be better prepared going forward. My suggestions:

- There's safety in numbers. You don't have to be alone with your fears. Reach out and cultivate a diverse community of people that you can reach out to. This accomplishes two things- it protects you with a layer of people who can pull you back up when you are at your lowest and most vulnerable, and it exposes you to different stories and viewpoints, which forces you to recalibrate your fear monitors and reexamine your biases. The more diverse your inputs, the more reliable they will be at alerting you to the most prominent risks.

- Likewise, surround yourself with a diverse media environment. Be more open to opposing viewpoints because they see something that you don't. Depending on one source for all of your news and opinions is a dangerous way to limit yourself. Read books, listen to podcasts, and watch newscasts that inform without trying to scare you. Yes, there are dangerous things out there, and reasonable steps should be taken to address them. But fear depends on ignorance and gullibility, and knowledge is the best protection.

- Finally, be aware of the incentives that drive most fear mongers. Advertisers want you to spend money on things you don't need. Politicians want your vote and want you to fear the alternatives. Social media companies want to keep you engaged and enraged forever. Fear is a powerful motivator in the short term- more powerful than love. But love by far is the strongest force in the long term, and the main force for good in the world. Choose love over fear whenever you can.

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