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Limiting our choices through facile fear

By Colin James - posted Wednesday, 12 July 2006

A few things occurred in the past few weeks, which contributed to my thinking about this month’s topic: choice.

Walking around Centennial Park in Sydney, on one of those glorious Saturday mornings that Sydney seems to specialise in, I saw a little boy attempting to roller blade. About eight years old, he was wrapped in kneepads, elbow pads, a helmet, gloves and what looked like a chest protector. The child could hardly move. Alongside him walked his mother exhorting him to “be careful, Honey”.

What chance does this child have? He does not have the choice of learning through trial and error, to risk some pain, to experience risk. The message being hammered into his young mind is “life is dangerous. Protect yourself. At all times.” The choice to explore, learn, risk and have adventures is being removed more and more from our children. We live in fear on their behalf. Go to any beach these days and see parents sitting up like Meerkats, unblinkingly staring at their progeny bobbing between the flags.


Perth. The news of the horror of a little girl being savagely brutalised and murdered in a suburban mall toilet slashes across headlines and tears at our hearts. The next few days talk-back radio is filled with “toilet danger” and the lack of facilities for parents to accompany their alternative gender child to public toilets.

Images of distraught schoolchildren laying wreaths on the sterile mall tiles outside the toilet door flicker and flash across screens. The world is indeed a dangerous place. The message is reinforced. Watch your children because predators lurk everywhere. No cameras at surf carnivals, fathers do not show too much affection, elderly men do not walk alone in public places where children play. The Meerkats will be watching you.

Question: when was the last time a child was murdered in a suburban toilet? What are governments going to do about this? What are shopping mall managements going to do in the future? The conversation focussed on the literal, not on the more complex realities of our society.

So we over-protect our children and take away their choice to learn, to discover, to experience threat, to epistemologically understand boundaries.

And then, a few weeks or so ago, a truck driver in Melbourne risked driving under a bridge. “Reckon I can make it,” he thinks before the screeching crunch of metal on brickwork tells him, “truck too tall, bridge too low”.

When interviewed by a TV reporter his response was: “I thought I could get through, obviously I didn’t, now I’m in a heap of trouble,” and he smiled. No excuses, no justification, no denial, no blame. He chose to take responsibility.


It was almost shocking to hear this. So rare is it that anyone chooses to take responsibility for anything these days that when someone does, it’s a blast of fresh air. The mantra today is “if I’m in pain, find someone to blame and sue them”.

This elderly trucky, I imagine, swam in swollen rivers as a child, went foraging in parks and neighbourhoods till dark and rode to school un-helmeted and without an escort. He may have built billy carts and understood the reality of gravel rash, broken an arm falling out of a tree and was the toast of his class mates with his white plaster cast. He was probably given the choice to explore his world without layers of parental fear: maybe kicked the local pedo in the shins and told him to piss off. Now a man, he simply chooses to take responsibility for his life. Good for him.

So the problem is not that we have too much choice, the challenge is we are limiting our choices through facile fear, over-reaction, hyper-anxiety and inability to see beyond the micro view.

Let’s choose not to be ruled by our illusionary fears - whether about the supposed dangers of roller blading, about children using public toilets, supposed stranger danger, or terrorism. Every time I pass through a metal detector in an airport I give silent salute to Osama Bin Laden (say his name out loud and I would be arrested) and his victory over the Western world through tapping into the culture of fear.

What are we really scared of, that gives rise to the possibility of this culture of fear? Perhaps it is that people fear God is dead, that Nature is not benign (witness the absurd hysteria over bird flu), and that Society is against us. Those who live in a world view constructed from those three dimensions would find themselves living in great fear, with threats all around. Perhaps that is us.

Yet there is Mystery, if not God per se; Nature is our friend; and we do, overwhelmingly - especially in Australia - live together in productive and peaceable ways. However, this world view doesn’t sell newspapers or garner votes and so is not sustained in the public discourse. Time, surely, that it was.

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About the Author

Colin James is one of Australia's principal Corporate Trainers. He conducts training in Asia Pacific and US. His corporate clients include Exxon Mobil, Oracle, Bankers Trust, Commonwealth Bank, ANZ Bank, Telstra, Optus, CSL, AT&T, Merck Sharp and Dohme, Roche Products, Estee Lauder, Clinique, among others. In addition, Colin works extensively with the Commonwealth and several State Governments as well as providing reduced cost services to select non-government organisations.

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