News & Commentary

Have we reached Peak Risk and how can we deal with it?

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Recently I travelled to Europe. Before I left, friends and acquaintances noted their concern for my safety ‘over there’. ‘I’m glad it’s you. I’m too scared to travel with things the way they are’, ‘be careful’ and ‘but is it safe?’ were offered as a kind of ‘othering’; risk was conceptualised through a quick and dirty analysis of global unrest, translated into a conflation of risk — and projected onto me.

Having lived in England, my familiarity with Europe and my keenness to remain engaged in its political and social shifts helped shake off this “risk narrative”. The worst thing that happened to me on my trip was that my bag got lost. But I did notice something different this time. Strangers helped families with children on the long-haul flights. Someone in the pharmacy queue offered to drive me to the hospital when my asthma medication was lost along with my luggage. An older Parisian woman and I sat at Paddington Station and talked for an hour about her concerns about the impending election in France. A London cabbie had me in stitches telling me about his visit to South Australia fishing with locals. I’m not being trite but I had a profound sense of collectivism, something I’d not experienced before. People were nicer.

Perhaps it’s a result of post-Freudian therapy culture that people reflexively question social life. Perhaps it is the fallout from the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. Perhaps it is a new kind of navel gazing and apathy towards the institutions we once trusted. If we believe mainstream media and some social theorists who argue that contemporary life has become ‘complex’, we are in a new kind of crisis. A crisis of trust. A crisis where risk has become prevalent in decisions from personal travel plans through to institutional risks such as those around child protection.

Let’s say you are shopping and because the floor is wet, you fall over. There are no signs warning of the slippery floor and the shop is full of trip hazards. It’s logical to expect that it’s management’s responsibility to warn their customers of potential danger (Caution! Wet Floor!) or remove the risk completely (Get the mop!). This is the kind of ‘rationality’—the application of logic to a problem—that sociologists argue is symptomatic of the insecurity we feel in daily life. We need to trust shopping venues. We expect them to be safe. Unions have long championed worker’s safety. Occupational health and safety procedures protect the worker and the organisation. Risks can be identified and procedures put in place to ‘manage’ or mitigate these. We see this kind of logic everywhere. Warning television viewers or radio listeners that they are about to hear something potentially upsetting – named ‘trigger warnings’—is of Peak Risk.

What kind of life do we live when we are constantly assessing situations and strangers for potential danger?

Yet we are now in a time where we exist outside our traditional and occupational roles. Leisure activities and globalised knowledge and production have created a kind of democratisation of risk. For if anything, risk is everywhere. Surely there’s someone responsible? Yet risky situations are hard to predict. Outside work situations risk is more difficult to rationally manage. How do we foresee risk? Law enforcement tells us to be vigilant. But how? Vigilant towards whom? What kind of life do we live when we are constantly assessing situations and strangers for potential danger? We are in a messy world where the good guys and bad guys are hard to discern.

If this seems depressingly familiar, look to the acts of resistance and ‘everyday collectivism’ that provides a certain kind of inoculation. There are countless examples of collectivism where ordinary people, strangers, come together for the common good. For example, collective action saw passengers act together to detain the alleged attacker on the Malaysian Airlines Flight last week.

After returning to Australia from my trip when Centrelink was sending letters of demand to its recipients, I saw another kind of collectivism taking place. The #notmydebt campaign was not simply a clictivist movement, in fact, as @Asher_Wolf argues, the online component was the least effective and instead:

…the most powerful aspects were, firstly, helping people get their stories out and secondly, linking organisations and individuals in new and creative ways.

Merely speaking out against a tide of inequality is never enough. Activists across a range of minority groups have long known that multiple methods are required: legislative, personal, political and social agitation brings about change.

If my recent experience of collective helping is countered with the vitriolic hatred and misogyny prevalent in social media, which is true? Are we as a social actors in conflict or are we moving towards collectivism? The answer is that both can be true. The contemporary world does seem more complex so newer and creative ways of bringing about change are required. Gender studies theorist Stevi Jackson tackles the conflicting narratives of contemporary life, arguing that each of these narratives are threads that are interwoven in the fabric of ordinary life. Each narrative co-exists, contradictory and confusing but present nonetheless. Now is a time when we need to come together to act in new and yet tested ways, to look for the helpers, to turn the introspective gaze outwards, to seek out injustice and to act together to counter broader discussion of risk, trust and powerlessness.

[box]Image of London Bridge incident this morning via Twitter[/box]

9 responses to “Have we reached Peak Risk and how can we deal with it?

  1. The elephant in the room creating the risk is never mentioned through collective cowardice. We illegally invaded Iraq and killed about 500,000 Iraqis. Sadam Hussein warned before the gulf war that although he could not retaliate against the USA, in dividual Arabs could. If terrorists were to let off 10,000 bombs killing 50 each then maybe they would be getting close to the damage that we have done them. Come on folks it is about time you held our men of steel to account. It is not them sufferingg the consequences but us.

  2. John, the article is not about blame (though you make some valid points); it’s about human reactions to collective trauma. This is what happened to us in New York. After September 11 2001, we were due to visit in October and dithered a lot. The airline offered to let us cancel. In the end, we went, and we were extremely glad that we did. New York was a different place. People were very pleased to see us, with tourists staying away, tours cancelled and hotels and restaurants empty. They needed us and were glad to acknowledge our support. Waiters sat down with us in restaurants at the slightest sympathetic overture, sharing their stories of the horror. Our guide on the first, reopened tour of Rockefeller Center welcomed everyone and asked where we were from. ‘You Australians are so intrepid!’ he said. People talked openly about how their livelihood disappeared when tourists did, because so much of the economy is (disgracefully) tip based. People on the street couldn’t do enough for us or for each other. We did our best to support New York, both financially and emotionally, and all the time, there was the glimpse of smoke rising from the rubble down odd streets, armed police everywhere, and US flags in every shop window and on every car. It was a bit confronting, but it was an understandable reaction: this is who we are.. Collective trauma can produce collective strength and humanity. While the immediate effects have worn off, I still experience New York as a friendlier, less standoffish place even now.

  3. I agree with John Murray. Mainstream media seems blind to what we are seeing is “blowback” for long-term historical interference in Islamic lands by western European powers, including their colonial offspring. One could arguably go as far back as the Crusades, but in the modern era 100 years ago is sufficient. At that time, the British agent T.E. Lawrence (later glorified as “of Arabia”) was stirring up angry Arabs to rebel against their Ottoman overlords, with promises of independence. They were used as Imperial proxies of course, and were betrayed. Lawrence was intelligent enough to know what he was doing, and loathed himself for the rest of his short life.

    This pattern of using angry Arabs as proxies to fight dirty imperial wars, then betraying them, has been repeated over and over, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya being just some latest examples. The imperial occupation of their homelands continues, but angry Arabs, many acculturated with a century or more of hatred are now widely dispersed. A very few seethe with enough hatred and are in a position to respond with violence against the culture that they believe, with some justification, has betrayed theirs.

    The victims are always innocents, but their larger political culture is guilty. If one reaction at home (overlooking the usual justification for another military orgasm) is that people are becoming more communal and caring, then that is encouraging. But the reasons for the “blowback” need to be critically examined. Sadly, our “media”, and worse, our politicians, are hopelessly incapable. Instead we have the likes of Eric Abetz and Julie Bishop spewing about “unspeakable evil” or something. Indeed. But whose evil?

  4. Thanks Priscilla for your article. I found it encouraging.

    Yes John, I too have been saying in our household that we would not have ISIS today if it were not for the actions brought about by Bush, Blair (and Aznar if you want to include the sycophantic former Spanish President).

    But, that invasion wouldn’t have happened if Osama bin Laden hadn’t orchestrated the atrocity of 2001 in New York city, despite the two events being completely unrelated in reality.

    How now to find a way forward?

  5. It’s a thoughtful piece. It reminds me of people asking if going to Athens in 2010 was ‘safe’ after regular riots; or going annually to NYC. Australia is the centre of OHS psyche. Regardless of the randomness of terror, and that what makes it terror, randomness, I felt safer in Athens, in NYC and Indonesia, than say Adelaide after 2am in one of the city’s empty streets. I’ve seen more random glassing, head punching and brawling across Australia than other parts of the world. And much of this random violence is by the nation’s citizens.

  6. I disagree with the comments of John Murray and Alex Romanoff. The article was about human individual and collective responses to terror attacks and they then turn it into a partisan diatribe about the west’s guilt. As if kids watching a pop concert deserve to die because of the actions of western imperial powers for the last 100 years. That would include all of Europe and the US. And by inference Australia and all White population Commonwealth countries and former European colonies throughout the world. Why should we go back just 100 years just to suit the argument of those that say we deserve this? Imperial strategy was underway throughout the world by the same European powers long before that and they even fought wars between themselves over borders and imperial rights before and during this period. Yet Europe was able to put most of these enmities aside after 1945 thankfully for all of us.
    I just don’t see the point in selectively viewing history in the way in which some people do to justify atrocity. The arguments lack merit. When although Saddam said bombs could wreak causalities similar to what he and his country suffered during the 2 Gulf Wars, those doing the attacks are not doing it in his name. Saddam Hussein was President of Iraq and leader of the Baath Party, an ostensibly progressive left leaning socialist type Arab political party which translates as Renaissance. Women were afforded a greater degree of freedom and there was a more or less universal education and some health care. All built on oil wealth. And crucially repression. Interestingly some of Ba’athist Party former generals are leaders in IS insurgency in Iraq and Syria so go figure. Those doing these terror attacks are doing so in the name of Islam whether their adherents agree with their interpretation and their actions or not. And they are committing them in non-western places like Pakistan and Egypt against Christians and Shiite Muslims and Kurds who are Sunni – so go work that one out as well. These terrorists hate female rights and western democratic values. Why should their actions be excused away because some White person with a poor grasp of history and a lack of appreciation for the society in which they live and prosper wants to feign sympathy for contrarian viewpoints and people claiming to be oppressed?
    I don’t believe that the invasion of Iraq has got everything to do with the current attacks or the attacks of the last 15 years. There were attacks on Australians in Bali before the 2003 invasion. Al Qaeda have been bombing and trying to bomb US targets in the US and around the world long before 9/11. Further those doing the attacking are not primarily Arabs in the UK from the Middle East but are invariably from an Asian (Pakistani and Bangladeshi) background and increasingly from Africa – Libya and Somalia particularly – both countries are removed from the Middle East and its struggles to some extent. Libya has problems which are unique to it after decades of Saddam like Gadhafi rule.
    I don’t believe in this simple minded approach that the west is necessarily to blame for everything. This is the problem when such approaches are applied to what should be a good news story. Terror wherever it occurs should be called for what it is not explained away.

    1. Well Justin O’Connell, by using insinuations like “simple-minded”, “poor grasp of history”, “lack of appreciation for the society in which they live” with those who hold points of view opposite to yours, you have hoisted yourself on your own petard. Your opinionated piece skips all over the place but settles on nothing as far as the topic goes, and so is not worth replying to point by point. It would take an article-length essay to do so, and I have better things to do. Instead I refer you to a bit of reading:

      You might also get a copy of “Sowing the Wind” by John Keay, if you truly value learning history.

  7. I enjoyed your thoughtful article . It seems a supreme irony that the destructive acts on society that are becoming more common may be having the reverse effect by drawing people together rather than becoming ever more separated from each other by fear. Ultimately perhaps we as a species might begin to understand that collective regard and respect for each other is the ultimate saviour of us all, and not the never ending pathetic belief that somehow those in authority or man created deities will rescue us. The second world war is a good example of how extreme threat and hardship brought the people of Britain together. Sadly when the threat subsides, separation from each other takes over again

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