1 Feb 2009

Health and Safety

Yesterday I was very chuffed to see that a letter I submitted to The Independent had been published. I wrote it in response to an excellent article by Johann Hari on how religious propaganda is increasingly affecting arenas in which it should have no place - the UN being the most recent incidence. You can see the letter here, but that's actually not what's on my mind. What got me thinking was when my dad rang me this morning to voice 'a note of caution' and mentioned that the fact my full name, plus town and county of residence, were published in the paper. Google this information, and the first entry it brought up was my Amazon wishlist, which has my full address information. Whilst part of me experienced a heel-of-hand-to-forehead moment at the notion my dad was sad enough to actually bother trying this, most of me was actually pretty glad he'd told me. His concern was, I considered, fairly unlikely - that religious fundamentalists, incensed by my dismissal of the value of faith in international policy making, would try to hunt me down and kill me. I was more concerned on the issue of identity theft, so went and promptly changed my settings on Amazon so my details were no longer public.

My dad is a very safety-conscious man, sometimes to the point of frustrating all around him. I suppose it's a credit to his profession, as he's an airline pilot, and you wouldn't want to meet one of those with a cavalier attitude to safety. Whilst we all grudgingly recognise the value in knowing where the fire exits are when you're staying in a hotel, sometimes his insistence on covering all bases is to the chagrin of the rest of the family. When I lived in student accommodation, in a teeny converted two-up, two-down terraced house, it was not enough for him that there were smoke alarms at central points on both floors - he wanted to put one in each room. Trying to prise the drill out of hands and thwart this intention was necessary to remind him that there's being safety-conscious, and then there's being paranoid.

What today's phone call made me ponder though, was the way that the onus to protect oneself is always on the victim. And I'm not talking fire safety, or any practical matters that ARE within our hands. Of course it's your job to make sure your house, car and belongings don't pose a threat to yourself, your family and others. Those are things you can, and should control. What bothers me is the idea that I genuinely have any say in whether a fundamentalist maniac decides to set me on fire, and that I can prevent such occurrences through my actions. I'm not sure I really believe that. By preventing public access to my address, I can at least be certain that I'm not going to receive a house call from a jihadist. But for all I know, the family in the flat below could be secret bomb-makers anyway, stockpiling nitro-glycerin and lawn fertiliser ready to reduce this building to dust. So how much have I really increased or safeguarded my safety? It's not something we can ever quantify, because we can never truly know of all dangers that are out there, and thank god because if we did we'd all be carried off foaming at the mouth pretty swiftly. Part of what allows you to get on with every day life is an assumption that things are safe to some degree, and not focusing unncessarily on what could go wrong at any moment. Otherwise, you'd never leave your house, get in car or on a bus, switch on a kettle or even risk a glance at a stranger in case they're packing a knife.

However, in matters where we haven't figured out how to successfully subdue those who would remorselessly commit atrocities on unsuspecting folk, our questionable method of calming people is to make them think they're in control. Avoid the fundamentalists by either censoring what you really think of the dogmatic, neanderthal subhumans, or - if you're not willing to do that - make sure that at least they can't come and GET you. Being a stroppy and contrary sort, part of me wanted to snarl at my dad 'Let them come! Bring it on! Just let them try it!', but I suppose the irony of being proved right in my statement that religious extremists are paranoid halfwits who will accept no criticism of the their beliefs is possibly not worth dying for. Or being maimed in some vile acid-attack which certain groups in Afghanistan seem so fond of inflicting on women who dare to try and get an education. Still, you find yourself asking a common modern question - why am I the one who has to do this? Why am I the one who has to accomodate, allow, appease and bend over backwards? This constant state of running-scared from a mentally deranged minority is not freedom.

I feel the same about the way the onus is always on women to avoid sexual violence, as if being sexually assaulted involves any degree of choice. In the past I've walked alone at night almost deliberately to demonstrate the ridiculousness of the assumption that doing so will inevitably result in a grisly rape and/or murder, and the assumption that never doing so will magically free you from any danger of sexual assault. Sometimes it's been because I simply felt like being alone after a crowded, hot night out, sometimes it's because I wanted to leave a club/party at a time of my own choosing rather than having to fit in with the schedule of a male friend who would be my 'protector' and accompany me home. Nothing bad ever happened, and was never that likely to in the sleepy middle-class town of Leamington Spa. When I discussed this with some female friends, one of them said 'That's fair enough, but you can't deny that you are playing the odds by doing that'. I agree, but this is exactly my point - EVERYTHING involves playing the odds in some way or another. Anyone who has done the slightest bit of reading about rape statistics knows who is most likely to sexually assault a women - a partner, friend or relative. Assaults by strangers make up a jaw-droppingly low percentage of rapes - they constituted only 7-8% of sexual assaults in the study conducted by the Home Office in the run up to the 2003 Sexual Offences Bill. Therefore, all actions involving a male known to you is 'playing the odds'. Having a boyfriend is. Having male friends is. Having brothers, fathers and uncles is. But, because of stunning legal failure to discourage, catch or adequately punish rapists, society and the government lack the confidence or willingness to address rape at its root - the men who commit it. Therefore it places the onus on the victim, and upholds insane myths such as 'Don't do x, and you won't be raped'. It also makes it neat and easy to blame the victim when rapes do occur. What no one seems to be considering is the insanity of deeming a crime that, by its very defintion, is about force and the absence of consent, something that you 'could have prevented'. Sigh.

I wonder how the families of those killed in the 7/7 atrocities, the recent Mumbai bombings, the 9/11 attacks or the Bali bombings would feel if told that their late loved ones would still be alive if they had taken more trouble to avoid the actions of murderous extremists? Don't think that would go down very well, somehow.

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