Safety First: Why We’re so Preoccupied with it Now


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Let’s start with a disclaimer. This is not about the pandemic. I am not suggesting that any of us should blow off pandemic pre-cautions like wearing masks, hand-washing and social distancing. Keep it up!

That said, am I the only one who has noticed that “safe” and “safety” are (quite apart from the pandemic) invoked increasingly often? Like all the time. “Be safe.” “This is a safe space.” “We want you to feel safe.”

There are the “helicopter parents,” unrelenting in their anxious vigilance of their off-spring. Security systems that allow you to monitor your home, and fido, 24/7. Classrooms are judged “safe” or “unsafe” based on the language used and books read. “Safe spaces” are both sought and promised every time we turn around. Oh, and don’t get me started on children’s car seats. It would be easier to wedge them into a suit of armor!

As you can perhaps tell, I am a bit of a skeptic with respect to some of this. It sometimes seem a little overdone, extreme. Something would be wrong in a society of absolute safety (one of the points of the novel Watership Down).

That said, whenever I lead groups or programs in churches I do try to make them “safe space.” I want participants to be able to feel they are safe to express their questions and ideas without having someone come down on them or dismiss them.

But I came to new insights about what I think of as our heightened “safety” sensitivity as I read the chapter on social media in Yuval Levin’s new book, “A Time To Build.”

Levin’s chapter on social media is titled, “The Informality Machine.” He builds on his overall thesis that our institutions have declined as they have morphed from “formative” to “performative” in nature. What’s that mean?

Donald Trump would be Exhibit A. In office, he was not formed by the institution of the presidency, by its institutional norms or responsibilities. From the get-go to the bitter end he treated the presidency as a personal platform for gaining attention, for his performance on the national stage.

While Donald Trump provides an excellent example of Levin’s thesis, he has no corner on this phenomenon. In nearly every field of endeavor, including the church, individuals treat a position less as a set of responsibilities and constraints (a vocation) and more as a platform for performance and garnering attention.

When Levin turns to social media he notes, as many before him have, that though social media giants like Facebook claim their mission is “creating community,” what they offer is quick digital connection, but not real relationship or actual intimacy. We may be more “connected” than ever — and simultaneously more isolated.

Here’s how Levin’s argument clued me in to one reason why “safety” may have become a preoccupation, especially it seems for people in younger generations. Social media, Levin notes, intentionally blurs the lines between pubic and private, between inside (think “safe” inner circle) and outside (the whole damn world), as well as between formal (situations of some gravity and sensitivity in which restraint and decorum serve to protect us) and informality (let it all hang out). I would add the line between friendship and marketing to Levin’s blurred categories.

Perhaps the generations that have grown up with and been weaned on social media feel a heightened concern about safety, in part, because in that realm or space there are no lines, no boundaries, or distinctions or manners (manners? what are those?). You may find, you may even offer up, the most intimate details of your personal life to a world of strangers and lurkers. You can be “outed,” “cancelled,” trolled,” “shamed” or “defamed” in a fricking viral instant.

Here’s Levin:

“All of this results in a blurring of boundaries. Not only are the boundaries between public and private effectively erased in the realm of social media, but so are the boundaries between inside and out — that is between the relative security of the inner lives of our institutions and the wilderness of popular culture.”

No wonder people don’t feel “safe.” How could you feel safe if there’s a camera on your every move, a mic catching every word? That doesn’t sound remotely “safe.” In the name of ersatz “community” and “bringing people together” and “helping people to connect,” we’ve created a social world for which the word “unsafe” doesn’t get half of it.

Other factors, of course, are in play here, contributing to our anxiety and a pre-occupation with safety, but social media have changed life and society in fundamental ways we don’t really yet understand.

This story was published previously in Anthony B. Robinson’s blog.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinson
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


  1. A bigger question is “Why do we feel unsafe in the only world we know?” An instinct for self-preservation certainly has much to do with it. Another question is “Why do the navel-gazers indulge in such embarrassingly self-indulgent exceptionalism?”

    We have always felt the need to protect ourselves and those we love. Humans have indulged ourselves in endless superstitions (prayer, rituals, St. Christopher medals, Tibetan prayer wheels) and carried weapons for safety throughout history. “Safety First” has been a mantra for our entire lives. The sign at the railroad crossing read “Stop, Look, Listen” for good reason. No atheists in the foxhole.

    In the early days of television, KING-TV had an afternoon kids’ show hosted by a randy has-been Hollywood B-Western actor, “Texas” Jim Lewis, better known as Sheriff Tex. His sign-off line was a classic: “Remember kids: Safety!” Even as pre-pubescents, my friends and I were confused. We knew what condoms were. Then Tex would grin and fade out. A little later in life, his meaning became clearer.

  2. I’ve been hearing about safety in the art world for a number of years — in the farther past, we would talk about artists stepping outside the boundaries and taking chances, while more recently, the discussion has been about creating a safe space for someone to make work. Whether the work itself is different, or not, the way we perceive the making of it has changed.


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