Embracing Risk in a Climate of Fear and Surveillance

Sir Francis Walsingham

Sir Francis Walsingham (1532-1590), one of the founders of modern state surveillance.

In the name of safety, we are expected to accept ever greater impingements upon our privacy and our liberty. We are expected to pay for an ever expanding and increasingly expensive security apparatus. Ever since the Tudors centralised power and nationalised belief, the state has been telling us what’s good for us, and ‘taking care’ of those who supposedly threaten the national interest.

Public torture and execution may have gone, but the modern equivalents are actually more sinister, because they are more insidious. The state has been growing inexorably and swallowing an ever greater share of national wealth. People accept this when they are told it is for their safety. After all, we wouldn’t want to take risks, would we?

The same attitude prevails in our treatment of the young. They used to ramble freely in the streets and fields. Now they are contained in reservations with high fences (schools and playgrounds) or plugged into machines that keep them indoors.

Just as the population at large is subjected to ever increasing surveillance, the young are constantly observed and measured. Even before birth, a child’s privacy is invaded, to prepare them for a lifetime of being under the watchful care of the state. At this stage, many who deviate significantly from the norm are eliminated entirely. There could be few clearer examples than this of how a risk-averse culture embraces death rather than life.

Soon after birth, the health visitors arrive with graphs of size and weight based on the national average, and if the child is not conforming to this average, the anxious agents of the state put mothers under pressure to supplement natural food with artificial. Because we wouldn’t want to take any risks, right?

The stifling school data culture is a symptom of our national effort to eliminate risk. Everyone must be measured and analysed, and any deviation from the norm must be addressed, because deviance is a threat to a culture based on conformity.

But a life without risk is a life without freedom. Freedom always entails real choices, and therefore the possibility of bad ones, or dangerous ones. The surveillance of the population, and the particularly close scrutiny of the young, is a symptom of the deathly bureaucratic mindset, in which human freedom must be eliminated for the sake of control.

We have to ask ourselves whether freedom or safety is more important. Complete control, complete safety can never be achieved in any case. And if we are destroying freedom in an attempt to eliminate risk, we are in fact destroying humanity in order to save it.

We see this scenario played out in schools across the land, where managers destroy teachers in the name of bureaucratic control. If schools cannot embrace risk, they must reject humanity. They must reject the very thing they are supposed to be serving.


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