If you’re like me, you’ve pondered many times how we got to where we are today. About a year ago, we lived in a seemingly comprehensible and rational society born of the Enlightenment. We valued freedom and governed via representative democracy, and we looked down upon authoritarian nations such as China. Then something happened. It seemed like something snapped in the very fabric of Western Civilization, and virtually overnight it all turned on its head. Our values were tossed out the window. We work up in a world of draconian executive rule, a world where to question the narrative was to be become a pariah, instantly lambasted by all. Debate was suddenly immoral, and we prided ourselves on a culture of putting complete trust in whoever the media deemed to be an expert. In fact, thinking for yourself and doing your own research made you a villain. What happened?
In my opinion, we have seen a dramatic demonstration of our new, unspoken moral code, which I will call Safetyism. Safetyism is a term coined in the book The Coddling of the American Mind, but based on what I’ve seen in the world this last year, I think it applies far more broadly than just the United States. Safetyism sounds quite benign at first. It essentially means that we as a society consider people’s safety to be our top moral imperative. This can be safe from physical danger or from negative emotions. You can see this ideology in many things if you go looking for it, such as airport security theater, the much maligned “participation awards” given in schools, the massive amounts of government spending and debt, and of course the lockdowns and other associated mandates from governments in the last year. You don’t want to be “that person” who goes against the safetyist grain by asking whether these things are the right thing to do. You become the person stepping out of line, the person who doesn’t care about people’s physical safety or their emotional safety, if all you want to do is a cost-benefit analysis. This, ironically, endangers your own safety, as people may distance themselves from you for daring to voice these concerns, which could cost you your livelihood.
Why is safetyism a problem? Well, when it is executed by fallible humans in an imperfect world, it can get ugly. The fact is that we cannot make the world perfectly safe. We eventually have to die, and there is some amount of unavoidable unpleasantness in life, at least currently and practically speaking. I will, for now, be speaking of human society at our current levels of technology. I don’t wish to muddy the waters by getting into moral questions of putting people into a Matrix-like simulated paradise, and I feel this is an appropriate issue to dodge because this technology doesn’t exist now or in the foreseeable future. So we assume some unpleasantness, and thus we cannot perfectly execute our desire to make everyone safe. We should then instead attempt cost-benefit analysis and rational compromise, but we humans aren’t the best at that, so we instead use a nasty little trick to keep ourselves in a mentally comfortable space.
The trick is quite simple. We ignore things. Or, to put it another way, we apply safetyism not holistically but only towards those issues we are giving attention to at a given moment. We can’t possibly pay attention to the suffering of every person on the planet, and so we don’t do that. When someone calls your attention to the safety of children in the third world, you probably nod about how horrible it is, and you might throw a few currency units into a donation jar, metaphorically or literally. But almost nobody takes this purely utilitarian interpretation of safetyism to be their entire life. Most of us don’t give every dollar to feeding starving children in Africa, even if we actually think that would prevent the most suffering in the world (I’m not necessarily saying this actually is the right thing to do from this moral standpoint, it’s just an example of a viewpoint many would take when literally applying utilitarianism). No, we nod, virtue signal, and go about our business. We aren’t thinking about that all day, and we aren’t thinking about the atrocities against Uyghurs all day either. This isn’t because we’re bad people, it’s just too much to process and we have to live our lives. We can view the innate selfishness of humanity through this lens; it isn’t that we genuinely think we’re more important than everyone else, it’s just that our wellbeing is always on our mind by virtue of our brain constantly having to process things related to it.
There is a big problem here though. We let society tell us where to direct our attentions, and we ignore most everything else. We let others do the thinking for us, and let them tell us where the moral good lies. We give up a lot of our agency, perhaps all of it, when we say that we are subservient to the moral orthodoxy of the moment. One minute, we are fighting pollution tooth and nail, the next minute, we’re discarding masks left and right. Because we’re always aware of our own safety as well, we find ourselves afraid to speak out, quite rationally so.
You can probably see where I’m going with this. This is exactly what is happening in the Covid-19 pandemic. The media, whose incentive is not to disseminate truth but to sell their product, sensationalized this pandemic to an absurd extent. It is to the point where Americans believe, on average, that 9% of the US population has died of Covid-19. This led to a moral panic, because our top moral imperative, our safety, was allegedly being threatened. Daring to question the severity of the threat, which nominally seems like a good thing to ask, was considered evil because it might lead to people taking the threat less seriously, which might harm someone’s safety. Crazy hypotheticals like constant reinfection were borderline assumed to be true, and evidence was constantly needed to prove that the virus was like every other coronavirus, because of this. The burden of proof was backwards, and the worst was always assumed of the virus. Daring to do objective scientific research was a thought crime, because somewhere down the line, somewhat could get hurt. Gabriela Gomes had her work indicating a low herd immunity threshold suppressed in peer review, not because of methodology, but because they didn’t like her answer. She was told:
“Given the implications for public health, it is appropriate to hold claims around the herd immunity threshold to a very high evidence bar, as these would be interpreted to justify relaxation of interventions, potentially placing people at risk”
This is coming from the scientific community, the supposed bastion of skepticism and the search for the truth. This quote should send chills up the spine of every post-Enlightenment human being alive. The scientific community, and essentially any human institution you can point to, have bowed down to the safetyist mindset. Regardless of whether her work was good or bad, this should not be how we conduct science, yet here it is. The ideas were uncomfortable, so they had to be suppressed for the greater good, as it is seen by the scientists in question. This was going on all over the place, and it’s why we never heard an alternative viewpoint to the lockdown madness.
I think safetyism is why we still talk very little about negatives except Covid-19 deaths, and it is why when we do talk about these things they are bizarrely misattributed to the virus instead of the government mandates. The issue cannot be nuanced or multidimensional, because that might lead to people not acting in a simplistic, “feel-good” way. That would take people out of their safe, comfortable bubble and expose them to ambiguities. We can’t have people physically harmed and we can’t have them emotionally harmed, so everything became a very simplistic “good versus evil” message. Virtue became comically simple: Anything saying the virus was scary became good, anything saying otherwise was disinformation to be censored. Anything supporting “doing more” was good, anything supporting “doing less” was bad. Additional nuance was just asking for people to compromise and accept the imperfections of the world, which simply was not allowed under safetyism. We are supposed to look the other way when our policies create problems elsewhere, and when our attention is directed there, we need to scapegoat a villain and provide an easy solution. That’s why people make absurd claims like “if only everyone wore a mask, this would have been over in two weeks” that don’t pass a basic smell test. They have to believe, or pretend to believe, in a simple world where they can take simple actions to dispel evil.
When taken to its logical conclusion, this safetyism starts to become very authoritarian. People don’t even want to look at the messy consequences of the world, so they export this thinking to the designated experts. Those experts in turn have to provide a very sterilized, black-and-white message for the public, or else risk their own jobs through cancellation. The whole system proceeds without anyone really being able to stop it. I’ve said this time and time again: There isn’t some mustache-twirling Machiavellian puppet-master behind the scenes, on whose strings we all flail. There is just a society, full of rational actors, following societal conventions.
I think this also explains the origins of cancel culture. Under a safetyist worldview, when someone finds themselves uncomfortable and expresses that, it is incumbent on people to do something about it. Just like when someone is reminded of poverty, or of pollution, they have to act on it, at least momentarily. Cancel culture provides an easy, feel-good way to do that. Everyone can show their solidarity by acting on the evil force that has temporarily injured the blissful heaven that life is supposed to be, and so they do that. By not doing so, you risk being labeled as a sympathizer, and the good/evil dichotomy is so rigidly enforced that no opposite pressure exists; one has no risk from going to far in excoriating a cancelled individual, but one suffers great risk by daring to defend them in even the lightest terms. In fact, even ignoring the issue might be perceived badly in some circumstances. In this sense, the entire society becomes a puppet of itself, forced to violently expel people to perpetuate its own warped ideology. We create a never-ending French Revolution, where we are all Robespierre putting innocents to the guillotine for fear that we might be next if we don’t keep it moving.
I think I have a rough guess as to how safetyism got here. I think the world was once a much less safe place, and that it was advantageous for a time to try to increase the safety focus in society. I think it built a stronger, more resilient world, but only when people balanced it with skepticism of authority, critical thinking, and a recognition that life isn’t a fairy tale with designated heroes and villains. Basically, before it was held with religious, absolutist fervor, safetyism may have actually provided some benefit to the communities that adopted it, and so it spread through the marketplace of ideas. But now, we find ourselves tumbling down the slippery slope to tyranny with great haste because of safetyism. I think it is the force behind the lockdowns, and the force behind a lot of other problems.
I wanted to make this post because I found this way of thinking illuminating and helpful for understanding what has become of this world. I wish that it contained greater insights into how to fight back. There is no shortcut that I can see, no one weird trick to hack people’s psyches. People have given up on principles, they have given up on independent thought, and they have submitted themselves to whatever authorities and opinions are easiest to go along with. I think that this world cannot right itself unless a majority of people are willing to take a good, hard look at their values and the world’s values, and decisively reject our current social system in favor of a vastly more ideologically permissive one. Even if we escape restrictions for a while, we will be right back in the lockdown trap when the next pandemic comes along, or perhaps because of climate change, or perhaps because of little old influenza. We know that the burden of proof will always be on us to prove that restrictions wouldn’t save anyone, and we know that burden is unreachable, and we know that the experts will not want to discuss tradeoffs. We know that the media will always go for hysteria over facts, because their incentives are aligned with selling their publications, not the truth. We know that the people follow the media, and that the votes follow the people, and that the politicians who make decisions follow the votes.
I do believe that the thing that will make people reevaluate, ironically, is when safetyism produces the opposite of safety. It is when the public health interventions have hurt them financially, it is when they see the destruction around them and especially when it hits them. Because remember, their own problems are the one thing they must always focus on, besides that which the media deems important. When these people are in doubt, we must be there to offer an alternative. We must create a welcoming, vibrant network of skeptics, of free thinkers, of whatever we are. If we don’t, I see nothing in our future but a free-fall into a truly unprecedented global tyranny.
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