How do you tell a parent that allowing their child to climb a tree is worth the risk of death? Or to value the importance of dodge ball in a 10-year-old's life? The answer to these questions is found not on the playground but in rebuttals to the USA PATRIOT Act: security isn't everything. That's the premise for Vancouver author and deschooling advocate Matt Hern's new book, Watch Yourself: Why Safer Isn't Always Better (New Star Books, $22). It's something a lot of people have had on their minds for a while, according to Hern.
"The connection I try to make is that it all comes from the same kind of logic," Hern told the Georgia Straight. "When someone says, 'It's for your safety,' it's very hard to make an argument against that."
Speaking in a telephone interview from his home in East Vancouver, Hern argued, "You can live your life without dodge ball and you can live your life without climbing a tree or playing tag, but that's a pretty slippery slope." He noted that all three activities have been banned from many schoolyards in Vancouver.
Hern claimed that making people feel unsafe is one of the most pervasive and effective advertising strategies available. He cited the explosion in sales of sport utility vehicles in the mid 1990s as proof.
In Watch Yourself, Hern writes that SUVs were originally designed as a gimmick that allowed automakers to classify a car-sized vehicle as a truck in order to avoid certain safety and emissions regulations. But manufacturers quickly learned that people felt more secure in larger vehicles, so SUVs were advertised as a way for people to protect their families. In reality, Hern noted, larger vehicles are harder to control and significantly more likely to overturn during quick manoeuvres.
"The logic is so pervasive that it's such an easy marketing ploy for anything," Hern said. He went on to cite police departments' tendencies to convince communities that their services are increasingly vital, while in reality levels of crime in Canada have remained surprisingly stable over the past 20 years, "or water companies telling us that tap water is infected and you need to get pristine glacier water from the Swiss mountains".
Hern said that in matters of safety, perception is far more influential than reality. "It's a gut-level, visceral kind of ploy that is consistently effective." From families and communities, Hern's argument is extended to national policy. He argued that Canadians' fear of terrorism has meant an unprecedented tradeoff with civil liberties. "The degree to which the surveillance of everyday citizens has increased is truly remarkable," he said. "Canadians are smug about not really having Homeland Security here. I wouldn't be so confident in that."
Hern claimed that the implications of a society that assumes it is always being watched are already visible. "You begin to discipline yourself and govern your own behaviour in all kinds of ways." He used the example of the family to prove his point. "You always find yourself wondering if somebody is watching how you take care of your kids," he said. "What if somebody feels that you're being unsafe?"
In this climate of watchful fear, Hern questioned whether parents can still decide if their child can play the way they once did, and if guarding against a hypothetical terrorist threat is worth having your phone tapped. His message works on every level of society. "I'd like to think of this book as a bit of heresy," he said. "To say, actually, safer isn't always better."