Ten Things Our Grandparents Got Right #3: They allowed us to fail

Part Two:

Life with no consequences:

Let me rephrase that:  We live lives of unparalleled freedom from disease, accident, injury, and danger.  The kinds of immediate consequences our distant ancestors might have had to live with are mostly gone.  We are less likely to be sick or to die (or to be eaten by a lion) than any group of humans in the history of the race.  Murder, and war, and in fact all crime is down:  way down.  It’s hard to believe this when all you see on the news is depravity, but it’s true.  Cancer is down.  We’re living longer and healthier.  Even the threat of car crashes, which is the #1 killer of young people in Canada, is declining.  It became the #1 killer because the previous champion, disease, is much less likely today, and it, too, is less and less likely as time goes on.  We ought to be the most emotionally secure generation in history, and yet anxiety, particularly in children, is on the rise.  Our fears have become abstract, and it’s difficult to learn concrete lessons from abstractions.  We are, in fact, just abysmally, shockingly bad at understanding how risk works.  But it’s not entirely our fault:  our brains are working against us.

Dan Gardner, the author of the excellent book Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, points out that psychological research into risk management by Paul Slovic and others, indicates that the brain uses two separate systems to assess danger.  System One, which Gardner terms “Gut”, uses quick-and-dirty techniques that would have been reinforced concretely on the Savannah thousands of years ago:  somebody mentions lions, and you remember that a tribe member was killed by a lion sometime in living memory.  So, avoid the tall grass.  Makes sense.  More ancient humans who followed this rule would have survived to pass on their genes.  Skeptics were admirable, but dead.  System Two, “Head”, rationalises and tempers the reactions of the “Gut” system, but cannot make the way we feel about danger truly commensurate with what statistics say about our safety.  Is there really likely to be a lion in the grass today?  Has anyone seen a lion lately?  Ramp the fear down a tad, but not to levels that reflect actual risk percentages.

The brain has not had the time in evolutionary terms to be able to deal with the kinds of abstract ‘dangers’ that we face from day to day, such as deadlines or UV rays.  Our fear about the safety of our children falls mostly into the “Gut”’s purview.  Paul Slovic made a list of 18 characteristics of activities or technologies that universally raised the perception of risk in people’s minds, regardless of the actual circumstances.  Children are right up there with “Accident History” and “Catastrophic Potential”.  The media (also on the list), unfortunately, is complicit in exaggerating risk, and parents are so terrified (for example) about their kids being abducted by strangers that it never occurs to them that the actual chances of that happening in Canada are statistically 1 in 5.8 million!  That’s a far smaller risk than is needed to dismiss it pretty much entirely.  It’s considered zero risk, or a risk de minimis in terms of probability studies:  a danger so minute that it disappears statistically.  But think of how much public policy and attitude is based on the idea that sexual attack and abduction of kids is common!

Or school shootings.  To my knowledge, there have only ever been ten acts of gun violence in Canadian schools since 1902.  The total death toll was 26, more than half of which came from a single incident at the École Polytechnique in Montréal.  One came from a school in Alberta where a friend of mine was teaching, eight days after the Columbine case in the U.S.  If you estimate the total number of students in Canadian schools since 1902 (hard to tell:  there are 5.2 million kids in school today, NOT counting universities and colleges; multiply that by 110 years and skim a bunch off for the smaller population in previous generations….you still get several hundreds of millions), and figure those 26 unfortunate people into that number, the chances of dying in a school shooting in Canada are too small for my calculator to measure without an error message.  But every year, we now have to suffer through “Lockdown Drills”, officiated by the police, where we all have to pretend there’s a maniac in the halls.  Time is wasted, kids are frightened, and money is spent for no good cause.  Remember, all violent crime is on the DEcrease, very dramatically.  Polls show that children’s safety at school is the single most common crime-related concern, and yet the school environment is statistically, indisputably, the safest place for kids – much safer than the home or the street.  In an attempt to rein in emotional overreaction, the APA, in 2006, issued a resolution calling for the modification of the “zero tolerance” attitude toward discipline, because it was shown to increase bad behaviour as well as drop-out rates!

But no principal or Education Minister would be able to advance his career by quoting the astronomically low probability of injury or death at school.  They’d be accused of ignoring the ‘problem’, as if one existed.  In my experience, principals spend half of their time being afraid of parents, and the other half being afraid of lawyers.  The way the laws in Ontario are written, the buck stops squarely at them in the case of any major incident involving students or teachers under their purview.

This leads me to the subject of the fear of litigation.  No matter how outlandishly rare or unlikely a scenario, when you have 7 billion people on the planet, chances are it’s going to happen somewhere.  And chances are, when it does, you will be sued with very little regard to the simple truth that sometimes accidents happen, and it need not be anybody’s fault.  And certainly, voicing the opinion that, even if it IS somebody’s fault, the benefits incurred from participating in a risky activity can outweigh occasional harm can get you branded as a child-hater.  “Acceptable risk” is a phrase we don’t hear enough of in public discourse.  It’s important to realise that there is no such thing  as zero risk.  There is no such thing as perfectly safe – there are only degrees of risk.  And yet, Daniel Krewski, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa, conducted surveys in which he found that a majority of Canadians believe that a risk-free world is not only possible, but that they expect the government to provide it for them.  In a universe where the total safety of all children at all times is not only assumed to be possible, but necessary, any harm is the fault of human error in judgement, and an unforgivable sin.  Like the Puritans, our society has no mechanism at all for the expiation of sin – other than the sacrifice of a scapegoat.  Arthur Miller in Act One of his play The Crucible, put his finger on it precisely: 

“Ours is a divided empire,” he says, “in which certain ideas and emotions and actions are of God, and their opposites are of Lucifer. It is as impossible for most men to conceive of a morality without sin as of an earth without ‘sky’. Since 1692 a great but superficial change has wiped out God’s beard and the Devil’s horns, but the world is still gripped between two diametrically opposed absolutes. The concept of unity, in which positive and negative are attributes of the same force, in which good and evil are relative, ever-changing, and always joined to the same phenomenon – such a concept is still reserved to the physical sciences and to the few who have grasped the history of ideas”. 

It reinforces our own sense of righteousness when we blame others for accidents which might have been inevitable, unpredictable, or unlikely.  The lawsuits that result from such common errors in thinking only add to the general insanity.  The constraints of anxiety, paperwork, and expectations on even high school field trips are so crippling that I am amazed that any of my colleagues still go through with them.  I am told that teachers, late in life, have a higher rate of health concerns related to the bladder, on account of the fact that we are told that we are never to leave our classrooms, even briefly, to relieve ourselves, without finding somebody (who?) to watch our students – for fear that “something may happen”, and we’d be on the legal hook.  Most of us just hold it.  It occurs to me that if our society were more focused on compassion and empathy, we would reduce the need or the compulsion for litigation, and I am sure that our collective anxiety would lessen enormously.  I am a little disappointed that this is never the subject of public discussion….which brings me to the next point, in the next posting, on the subject of individualism and the media.

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