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.