Contemporary America is obsessed with safety. As a society we’ve seemingly lost all sense of perspective, and have adopted a single-minded drive to eliminate every risk, no matter how small, and without regard to cost. This risk-averse fanaticism is taking a high toll on our culture, our institutions, and our freedoms.
When it comes to children, for instance, society has always tended to overreact to every threat, be it real or imagined. But that tendency has grown completely out of control. The latest ominous trend is to attack parents who leave children unsupervised for even a moment.
That’s what happened to Debra Harrell, a South Carolina single-mother who last year was arrested for daring to let her 9-year-old daughter play outside at a nearby playground during her shift at McDonald’s. Harrell didn’t make enough as a shift manager to put her daughter in daycare, so for most of the summer brought her to work where she played on her mother’s laptop. But the laptop was stolen, and the girl asked to go to a nearby playground instead.
Harrell agreed, and dropped her daughter off with a cellphone to use for emergencies. Both child and parent were comfortable with the arrangement, and nothing bad happened as a result. Until, that is, a nosy snitch informed state agents there was a child without a parent within two feet.
Police arrested Harrell for “unlawful conduct towards a child.” She had her daughter abducted temporarily by the state, spent 17 days in jail, and faced potentially losing her job and the means to support herself and her daughter. Thankfully, McDonald’s recognized the absurdity of the charges and she was able to return to work once the government decided that they had kept Harrell forcefully separated from her daughter for enough time – as her punishment for not spending enough time looking after her daughter, naturally. She even got a promotion.
But the entire ordeal was no doubt horrifying at the time. Her police interrogation played out like a tragicomic manifestation of society’s most irrational and hysterical fears about children. The officer condescendingly asked her, “You understand that you’re in charge of that child’s well-being?” When she answered in the affirmative, he piled on, “That’s not other people’s job to do so.” Their actions indicate the government thinks otherwise. Finally, the officer went to scare tactics, referring to the (highly exaggerated) threat of sexual predators and, when Harrell noted she left her daughter with a cellphone, chastising, “cellphones don’t save people.”
Clearly, only the government can do that. Children will never be safe until each and every one has their own appointed government agent watching them at all times.
South Carolina law criminalizes “unreasonable risk of harm affecting the child’s life, physical or mental health, or safety.” There is nothing that explicitly prohibits what Harrell did. But vagueness makes the law even worse, as it grants state agents arbitrary power to second guess all manner of parental decisions, and suggests that our understanding of what constitutes an “unreasonable risk of harm” has lost all basis in reality.
In Maryland the law is more precise. A child under the age of 8 may not be “confined in a dwelling, building, enclosure, or motor vehicle” if the caretaker is absent and the “dwelling, building, enclosure, or motor vehicle” is out of sight. Despite the clear meaning of the law, government nannies insist even a child outside can meet the above definition. That got one couple in trouble when they let their 6 and 1/2 year-old walk home from a playground under the guidance of their 10-year-old son. Like the officer in South Carolina, CPS officials traumatized the children by harassing their parents in front of them, as well as scaremongering to the children about “bad guys waiting to grab you.”
Evidence overwhelming demonstrates that children today are safer than they’ve been in decades. Crime, in general, is down across the board, yet the media paints a different picture, leading most to wrongly believe that children today face more threats to their physical safety, rather than fewer. The persistent myth that danger lurks around every corner even convinced one misguided family to stage a fake-kidnapping, like one of the outrageous “lessons” from the Bluth family patriarch on Arrested Development.
Society overrates the prevalence of criminal and physical dangers to children, so parents fail to realize that it is the relative safety of their own children in their day-to-day activities that even allows them to obsess about the smallest of dangers. The playground equipment that many of us grew up on and survived just fine, for instance, is being torn down or cemented into place by panicked governments, and replaced with safety-first boregrounds that no child wants to use.
Aggressively trying to eliminate all risk that children face is likely to create more problems than it solves. Overzealous government bureaucrats and helicopter parents that refuse to grant their children any independence are doing the next generation a disservice. Obsessing over even tiny risks leads to decisions that deprive children not only of fun, but of opportunities to learn independence, confidence, and self-reliance.
It’s not just little kids we’re coddling, either. Universities – once a bastion for free wheeling debate, intellectual confrontation, and experimentation – are increasingly stifling debate and insulating students from any difficult experience by insisting on so-called “safe spaces.”
Today, any time an event features a speaker that doesn’t toe the politically correct, “progressive” line, it faces ritual denunciation by students and faculty alike. Assuming a speaker is not outright disinvited, the event may be accompanied by school administered “safe spaces” and counseling services for student traumatized by the mere presence of different views, as happened last year at Brown when a debate participant had the audacity to oppose the dubious rape culture narrative.
The University of Michigan has even spent $16,000 to tell their students not to say “offensive” words, like ‘crazy.’ The typical campus atmosphere has gotten so repressive that Chris Rock refuses to play colleges at all. Students, he says, are “way too conservative… Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody.”
The campus “safe space” hysteria often relies on the fig leaf of protecting victims of trauma from being “triggered.” For those who have suffered serious trauma and developed PTSD – which the vast majority of trauma survivors don’t, though it is more common among sexual assault victims – triggering is a real concern. But for most college students, the only trauma at issue is their inability to cope with ideas challenging their own.
For those with real traumas, research shows that avoidance is a terrible idea. The worst thing you can do for a traumatized person is try to shield them from every potential trigger. They have to learn how to process and deal with triggered emotions, and that can only happen through exposure. The real world certainly won’t contort itself to protect individuals from any potentially uncomfortable scenario – which is impossible, anyway, as triggers can include anything, even a simple sound or smell.
The anti-trigger obsession has introduced problems in the classroom as well. Students have become so sensitive that professors cannot even cover core, vital material. A Harvard professor reports that “Student organizations representing women’s interests now routinely advise students that they should not feel pressured to attend or participate in class sessions that focus on the law of sexual violence.” How empowering.
But it gets worse. She says that, “Individual students often ask teachers not to include the law of rape on exams for fear that the material would cause them to perform less well,” and that, “One teacher I know was recently asked by a student not to use the word ‘violate’ in class—as in ‘Does this conduct violate the law?’—because the word was triggering.” Because of all this, “teachers are starting to give up on [rape law].”
How do these delicate flowers ever expect to work a sexual assault case?
Thankfully, there is hope even for the coddled generation. One Columbia student recently stood up to the purveyors of oppressive safety. He, along with every other student, was requested to hang in his dorm window a sign declaring it a “safe space” prohibiting “homophobia, transphobia, transmisogyny, racism, ableism, classism and so on.”
He made his own sign in response, which proudly declared, “I do not want this to be a safe space.” Instead, all who entered would be expected “not to allow identity to trump ideas [or] emotion to trump critical thinking.” He promised, “I will judge your ideas based on their soundness and coherence, not based on who you are.”
His sign – in bold – concluded, “This is a dangerous space.”
There is a tragic shortage of such danger today. It is stunting the intellectual and emotional growth of children and students. But maybe there are more like this student who have long suffered the condescending protections of overprotective nannies, and who may finally begin speaking out. Let us hope he is the start of a dangerous movement.
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