Thursday, September 1, 2011

Fear and Silence


There was a post on Memeo today, about "complacency advocacy" -- people vehemently arguing that you should STFU and not rock the boat. It got me thinking, because I've noticed that phenomenon too. Memeo says:
Complacency enforcement in the form of policing activists is to be expected from those in advantageous power positions, yet it appears too often among those who are on the losing end of that scale.

Perhaps it is due to fear. That’s the only insight I have into it at the moment after having read a lot of these kinds of comments and having been on the receiving end of them more times than I like to remember.
Yeah, I think it's fear. I know a quite a few "normal people" (as the Russian expression has it) who grew up in police states or civil wars. Most of them have this as a built-in reflex: keep your head down, don't rock the boat, and don't go near anyone who doesn't keep her head down. Express strong opinions at odds with the consensus only among close family, if that. Don't even go see a remotely controversial movie because someone might be watching, or you might bump into someone, or there might be trouble.

I don't blame them. And I'm overawed when that fear breaks and cracks open the system. But even when it does, most people still stay home and keep their heads down. That's how fear-based polities work, by psychologically atomizing society, so networks of opposition never manage to coalesce. Not all Egypt was at Tahrir. Only the ones who somehow managed to crack that shell of fear.

I have noticed it more in our "free" societies as well, lately. It's the same vibe: the undertone of "you'll get us all into trouble." I don't think that it's a coincidence that despite these societies getting safer by the numbers -- less homicide, less violent crime, less rape, fewer war dead, less famine, longer life expectancy, fewer terror attacks, fewer traffic accidents, fewer victims from natural disasters etc. etc. -- our risk-aversion has grown far faster than the risks have fallen. If you believe that you're surrounded by deadly forces outside your control, keeping your head down and huddling in a silent mass, sheep-like, is a natural thing to do.

But sad.

I read a bit of news reporting a few months ago where they had interviewed three people, one born in the 1950's, one in the 1970's, and one in the 1990's, in a certain part of Helsinki. They'd asked them to map out the physical territory they roamed as children below the age of 12. The 1950's kid was all over the place, shooting rats at the harbor with a BB gun, climbing the rocky vacant lots in Kallio, getting into scraps with the kids from the neighboring neighborhood, taking long walks to Seurasaari, and so on. The 1970's kid's map covered the general quarter of the town pretty well, but had none of the 1950's kid's expeditions. The 1990's kid went to school, some friends houses nearby, and was driven by his parents to do sports and other hobbies. His map had a few disconnected spots on it.

This mirrors my experience as a suburban kid in the 1970's, the stories my parents' generation tell of their childhood, and their parents' generation of theirs. Nowadays it is unthinkable to see a 10-year-old kid by himself, or only with friends of the same age, out playing in the streets five or ten kilometers from home these days.

All because of fear. Yet Helsinki now is a great deal safer than Helsinki in the 1950's, with its heroin-addicted war veterans, more lethal traffic, general lack of safety barriers, unexploded ordnance left over from the war, and so on.

It really is too bad about fear.


  1. "our risk-aversion has grown far faster than the risks have fallen"
    Yes indeed - my job deals with (natural) risk management and communication, and I can attest that on a daily basis.
    What I see is that our primary mental defense against risks was fatalism.
    Fatalism helps to accept the residual risk as it is : an unavoidable and unmanageable risk, beyond what you can efficiently do (and have aleeady done) to protect you from it.

    About a hundred years ago, there was indeed some traditional risk management here in the French Alps (oral recollection of past events, mainly), and then fatalism was about accepting the events that couldn't be avoided with tools at hand.

    And then progress brought more elaborate ways of risk management (deterministic risk assessment, civil engineering protections...), and while theses measures were indeed much more efficient than the ancient methods, they also brought the very fake illusion that risk could be not only reduced (true), but annihilated (very false). And then came the flood that exceeded the capacity of the dam, or the avalanche that was deeemed unprobable, and fear goes on higher and higher because the zero-risk illusion cracks open.

    We can't probably go back to the ancient form of fatalism, as it may involve too little risk management, and risk management is desirable in itself ; we need to invent a newer form of fatalism, to accept that we cannot control everything on earth.
    Kind of passing adolescence, or what?

  2. A monk who is a friend of mine grew up in Soviet Poland. He shared with me a humorous saying from his childhood. It went something like this:

    Don't think. But if you think it, don't say it.
    If you say it, don't write it down.
    If you write it down, don't sign it.
    If you sign it, don't be surprised.


  4. Ran into this about children no longer learning how to cope with the world or motor coordination as they're being kept too safe:
    As far as the more adult fear, I wonder how much the increase in constant surveillance plays into the unwillingness to take risks. Knowing, from the US perspective, that the FBI and other law enforcement will be there to check who shows up at the Arab student union meetings that feature interesting speakers, or gather license plate numbers at environmental cause meetings, certainly dampens my willingness to participate.

  5. I came across this today and it reminded me of your post. It is a vintage safety manual with such warnings against playing in traffic or getting one's self locked in an abandoned icebox. I recall these being around when I was a kid. The results of actions were spelled out quite directly "crippled for life" "lost an eye" etc.

    Safety Manual

  6. I really recognise the "keep your head down" attitude here in Portugal. My parents-in-law (born mid 40es) refuse to discuss anything remotely sensitive (e.g. tax) on the phone, even if I argue that the authorities have neither capacity not the organisation to monitor "normal people".
    They are worried by the idea that I write to politicians - and shocked when I get an answer.
    The attitude never went away here.