Scaredy-Cat Society; Obsession with Avoiding Risk Is Seen as Threat, Conferees Told

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 21, 2006 | Go to article overview

Scaredy-Cat Society; Obsession with Avoiding Risk Is Seen as Threat, Conferees Told


Byline: Shelley Widhalm, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Risk was too risky and fear was too common even before September 11, and the growing obsession with avoiding danger may threaten our society's future, scholars said at a recent Washington conference. "Most human experiences come with a health warning, continually reminding us that we cannot be expected to manage the risks we face," said Frank Furedi, a professor at the University of Kent in England. "A powerful culture of precaution works to estrange the public from the ideals of risk taking, innovation and experimentation."

Policy-making has become more arbitrary, driven by "what if?" questions, said Mr. Furedi, author of "Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right," speaking last week at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

A disaster occurs, some kind of meaning is attributed to it, someone is blamed and policy is implemented or changed with safety as the ultimate goal, he said. Social policy, as a result, is focused on reassuring people that they are safe, but what they get instead is the illusion of safety while losing autonomy and control over their own lives, he said.

"Nobody gets criticized for being safe," Mr. Furedi said. "What is irresponsible is taking risks."

Last week's conference, "Panic Attack: The Precautionary Culture, the Politics of Fear and the Risks to Innovation," was co-sponsored by AEI in cooperation with the Institute of Ideas, a British think tank.

The conference focused on exploring the impact risk aversion has on many aspects of life, ranging from education to business. It also focused on the power that the precautionary principle - a loose term that calls for precaution to the point of risk avoidance in innovation, human relationships and anything humans do - has on Western culture.

Such is the politics of fear, Mr. Furedi said, that children, women and the elderly are labeled as "vulnerable" - about 80 percent to 90 percent of the population.

The corporate "social responsibility" movement, initiated by some advocacy groups, pressures businesses to avoid risk, said Jon Entine, an adjunct fellow at AEI and scholar in residence at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

"Business leaders are increasingly paralyzed by caution . …

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