Opinion | Safetyism Isn’t the Problem In the Coronavirus Debate


As America debates whether and how to reopen, those concerned about the side effects of the lockdown have begun to use the word “safetyism” to characterize what they consider extreme social-distancing measures.

Safetyism, a term first used in the book “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, denotes a moral culture in which people are unwilling to make tradeoffs demanded by other practical and moral concerns. Rather than seeing safety as one concern among many, it becomes a sacred value. Some point to statements like the declaration by Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, that “if everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy,” as evidence that safetyism has taken over what should be a more nuanced calculation about how to reopen.

While there is evidence of this kind of thinking in some politicians’ statements and policies, the more pressing problem is what we don’t see. The crisis has been marked by a rush to label, and demean, the other side. Partisans on both sides lack even a modicum of curiosity about their political opponents’ views regarding how to solve the Covid-19 crisis. Certitude is pervasive.

Individuals and cultures differ in the extent to which they’re willing to tolerate risk, so disagreements about safety are inevitable, whether deciding how to protect people from car accidents, crime or Covid-19. But everyone tolerates some risk. And there is some truth to the way we characterize left and right during this crisis: As polls demonstrate, the right is slightly more concerned about lockdowns being lifted too slowly and the left is vastly more concerned about lifting lockdowns too quickly.

The onslaught of social and news media make it easy to make general assumptions about each side. When bombarded daily with statements from Governor Cuomo, the lockdown position seems like safetyism: an obsession with avoiding contact with the virus at all costs, even if it means national suicide. Similarly, when those on the left only hear from people on the right who think the virus is either a bad flu or a hoax, the open-up position can look like a reactionary ideology of anti-safetyism: an obsession with freedom at all costs, even if it means sacrificing our grandparents’ lives.

But the left is also composed of people who argue for tolerating some risk, even as they suggest a slower reopening than the right would like. And the right is also composed of people who object to mandated lockdowns but accept indoor mask-wearing requirements and expect citizens to take voluntary precautions not only to protect themselves, but to protect the most vulnerable. And the vast majority of Americans across both sides of the aisle say, “We’re all in it together.”

When we react to our opposition’s most extreme views, however, and only interact with those who think like we do, not only do we fail to see the value in our opposition’s perspective, our own views tend to become more polarized and extreme. In other words, the more each side reacts to the most extreme version of the other side, the more each side becomes like the extreme version the other side rails against.

The mentality of safetyism adopted by some lockdown proponents makes it difficult to alter course, even when doing so might save lives. For example, as we learn more about the virus, we’re beginning to understand that the likelihood of transmission outdoors is very low. But instead of encouraging people to spend time outside, we’re seeing beach and lakefront closings and new mandates requiring people to wear masks outdoors at all times, even when social distancing.

At the same time, Americans whose lives are disrupted more by the lockdowns than by the virus are beginning to resist policies that expose them to negative and potentially ruinous financial, emotional, social and health implications. Protesters across the country (often maskless and not social distancing) have begun employing anti-safetyism talk that simply dismisses all concerns about the virus. Some compare the risks to other risks we easily tolerate — without acknowledging that those other risks are either less deadly (like the seasonal flu), or noncontagious (like car accidents). This embrace of anti-safetyism makes it harder to get out of the lockdown safely.

If lockdown proponents oppose not just the kinds of social activities that are likely to spread the virus, but all social contact, while lockdown opponents reject not just the costliest virus-fighting measures, but all such measures, it’s hard to see how we ever get to a place where work and life can resume with any amount of normalcy.

Solving the complex problems of the pandemic cannot be accomplished without considering ideological opponents’ views. We just don’t know how long lockdowns can serve as a life-saving, medically induced coma, and at what point they become lethal. Partisans need to replace “us versus them” thinking with the intellectual humility necessary to get the best thinking from political opponents.

Blame and recrimination are certainly common responses in pandemics. But they’re also counterproductive. Those who fall on the safetyism side of the spectrum are not fascists, and those who fall on the anti-saftetyism side are not human sacrificers.

If politicians would reject the tribalism of partisanship and do the hard job of listening — with open-mindedness and curiosity — to those with whom they disagree, we’d stand a much better chance of protecting both lives and livelihoods from not only the effects of the pandemic, but the effects of our responses to it.

Pamela Paresky (@PamelaParesky) teaches psychology at the University of Chicago and writes for Psychology Today. She is a senior scholar with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Bradley Campbell (@CampbellSocProf) is a professor of sociology at California State University, Los Angeles. He is the author of “The Geometry of Genocide: A Study in Pure Sociology” and co-author of “The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars.”

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