The terrible events that have been unfolding in Machynlleth force those of us who call for a more balanced approach to risk in childhood to take stock. How can we reconcile our views with the searing reality of such an apparently senseless act?
To quote statistics – as criminologist David Wilson has done in the Guardian, or as Channel Four has done on the FactCheck pages on its website – feels inadequate, if well-intentioned. However low the numbers, while we are still in the midst of tragedy, we hear them like whispers in a storm. And yet it seems equally wrong to simply allow our emotional responses to so overwhelm us that reason has no purchase.
In a piece in Monday’s Telegraph, journalist and science commentator Tom Chivers argues that psychology can come to our aid. His diagnosis is that our answers to questions like “how likely is it that this will happen again?” are skewed by the impact of events that – precisely because they are so rare – we recall in all-too-vivid detail. His cure is that we need to teach parents to be more aware of their biases, and to respond more rationally.
This insight may be helpful to those who are ready to take a more dispassionate stance. But it offers no way forward for those who are struggling even to gain a sense of equilibrium. If we are to come to terms with raw tragedy, we need to understand just why we can feel so helpless in the face of it. We need to start with the question that so often leaves us floundering: “how would you feel if it were your child?”
We need to look that question in the eye: to feel both its force and its flaws. That question is understandable as a plea for sympathy. But as a way of deciding what is best for children, it is deeply unhelpful.
I am not saying that we should ignore our emotions. But gaining a perspective on tragedy means moving on from the emotions that arise in its immediate aftermath. It means creating some distance from the circumstances of those who are still overwhelmed by loss. It means coming to terms with this simple reality. We live in a world that, while arguably safer for children than at any time in history [pdf link], is also a place where sometimes, monstrous things happen.
The plea to adopt the point of view of those who have suffered devastating loss cannot help but lead to excessively risk averse responses to tragedy. Such a plea is quite different from an appeal for sympathy. It is a request that we adopt the inevitably revised value system of the victim. And it is a request that, however understandable, we need to resist. The truth is, if we were always required to see the world through the eyes of the most unlucky, then we would always choose zero risk.
Note: if you have read my book No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society, or heard me talk on risk, you may recognise that last paragraph, which closely follows a passage from that book. If there is one message from No Fear that I hope people will read, remember and reflect on, it is this one.