It Doesn’t Matter if you Are Safe, It Matters if you Feel Safe

I wrote a book back in 2004 called The 100 Most Dangerous Things in Life and What You Can Do About Them. With a view to humor, I looked at statistics on hospital admissions and so on, and contrasted the danger from every day items to the more exotic dangers that pique our imaginations. You’re more likely to be injured by a teddy bear than a grizzly bear. While on the subject of teddy bears, you know those stories they put out every year at Christmas time warning about dangerous toys? They include valid statistics about how many children are injured each year by toys, but when you look at the data, you find that most of those injuries are not from swallowing small parts or from defective merchandise. In fact, most “toy” injuries are from people tripping and falling over toys that were not put away or from siblings hitting one another with them. In fact, in all categories of household injury, regardless of the instrument of destruction, the most common way a person is hurt is by falling down and banging part of the anatomy on the object.

In the introduction to my book, I wrote:

As I was writing this book, and discussing relative risks, I came to see how influenced I am by the culture around me. When I discovered that there had been no documented cases of humans contracting rabies from dog bites in years, I still felt compelled to warn readers not to let their guard down around strange dogs. I figured that someone might take this information to heart, decide it was safe to, say, walk up to a strange dog and tease it with a cap gun. Then they would get bitten, contract a nasty infection, lose a limb, and sue me for creating a sense of false security. In our society it seems almost irresponsible NOT to sound the alarm about something, even when the risk is minimal…

I had the same thought again while working on an update to the Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation. Writing an entry on the annoyance of figuring out how car seats work, I came across some evidence that car seats may not actually be safer than a seat belt. I ended up not including that information, because it seemed too controversial. It is one we rarely discuss, but our culture dictates that we sound the alarm. It is a taboo to say “Don’t worry.”

But as I wrote in Dangerous Things:

Frankly, we worry about the wrong things. Why? It has to do with basic psychology. Human beings, in general, tend to overestimate the dangers of rare events while dismissing the dangers of every day events. In fact, every day events are more likely to cause you harm if for no other reason than they happen every day. Also, we’re much more likely to fear man-made problems than nature-made problems. Risk consultant Peter Sandman believes our level of fear tends to correspond more to our level of “outrage” than to our actual level of risk.

Never has this been more true. In recent years politicians, especially of a certain far right variety, have been shooting at phantoms, trying to make laws to protect us from dangers that they insist–without any data–lurk around every corner. These dangers are stoked by misdirected outrage. The outrage has little to do with crime and personal safety, although that is how it is framed. The outrage is over the existential question of “What is an American?” Do we need to be alike as a nation to be cohesive? How much difference can we tolerate before we are not a single culture or community? When should people conform for the good of society and when should society tolerate difference? Who gets to decide?

Back in May the people of North Carolina, and by extension the nation, became embroiled in the question of whether people with non-conforming gender identities should be allowed to use the restroom of their choice. This was framed breathlessly as a need to protect vulnerable women from sexual assault in public restrooms by men who gained access dressing as women. You may remember that while this debate was hot I wrote about the flame war that I got into with a friend of a friend on Facebook after I posed a simple question:

That is to say, if we grant that these legislators were really concerned about restroom safety, (rather than, say making a point that people are always the gender that it says on their birth certificates and will not be accepted in any other way) would requiring people to use the restroom of the gender on a person’s birth certificate solve the safety issue?

Clearly no.

Let’s grant for a moment the premise that there is a big problem with men putting on women’s clothing for the sole purpose of going into public restrooms and raping or gawking at women. There is no evidence this is actually a thing, my sparring partner said that “there are cases” but didn’t care to be more specific. In any case, for the sake of argument let’s grant that this is a problem that needs to be addressed with a new law.

Assuming your state is not also budgeting to have people stationed at public restroom doors to check birth certificates, or requiring businesses to do so, then people are going to be on the honor system.

So now our fictional cross-dressing rapist can walk into a women’s restroom with complete confidence without changing his clothes. All he has to do, if questioned, is say “I was born Jane Marie.”

Clearly the legislators have not thought things through.

The person with whom I was debating was so concerned with women’s safety that he replied that he hoped I would be raped in a bathroom.

In a pluralistic society, we have agreed not to legislate that people must be culturally cohesive. We cannot require people to be Christian or gender conforming or straight. We can, however, make laws in the interest of “safety.” The “dangerous other” has reared its head in an ugly way in the executive order that Donald Trump recently signed barring entry to the United States to people from certain countries.

Here is the most important fact about the list of countries in Trump’s executive order:

In the 40 years to 2015, not a single American was killed on US soil by citizens from any of the seven countries targeted – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – according to research by the conservative-leaning Cato Institute.

Not a single American. Not one. Left off the list are majority Muslim countries where Trump has business interests. Also excluded are the home countries of all of the September 11 attackers, most were from Saudi Arabia and the rest from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon. Also excluded are known terrorist hotbeds Pakistan, Turkey and Afghanistan. It does, however, to a good job of targeting Shia Muslims.

This was legislation created in response to an applause line to appeal to people who have never been asked to take the time to differentiate between the citizens of different foreign nations. The general public might be outraged by terrorist attacks and blame a nebulous, overbroad “other.” We can perhaps forgive a busy person who was never really taught geography in school for not knowing the difference between Muslim nations, especially when our public discourse seems to do its best to obscure it. It is the job of our elected leaders, however, to be more informed and to come up with solutions that actually address the problem and not simply to make a show of safety. National security and our values as Americans are too important to be conducted by social media likes and television ratings. And shame on those politicians who know the difference, and who are willing to stand by and say nothing.



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