Better to be safe than …

A friend took me to see the new Jason Bourne film last night. (I’m still not mobile.) It’s definitely a good watch, though I found I was more than a trifle concerned by the comment on the certification. If that constitutes ‘moderate violence’, then what on earth counts as ‘extreme’, I wonder.

That aside, the film explores some interesting questions, not the least being the idea of ‘safety’. This is a word I hear bandied about a lot at the moment – particularly in association with other words like ‘public’ and ‘national’.

The thorny issue of personal privacy apparently being a concept which sits in opposition to either of the above safety labels, is nicely highlighted in the plot, and the role of contemporary technology in enabling said ‘safety’ is brilliantly portrayed – to the extent that, by the end of the film, I began to feel I might eventually become the only untrackable human on  the planet! (I don’t have a mobile phone, choose not to frequent areas overseen by CCTV and only connect to the internet from my home address.)

I also found myself almost shouting at Tommy Lee Jones (how can a film fail to please with both Matt Damon and Tommy Lee Jones in it?): “What is it you want to be safe from?” The paranoid obsession portrayed by this fictional CIA Director, that the biggest threats come from somewhere ‘foreign’ or ‘outside’, that all basic human rights are automatically subordinate to the self-declared concept of ‘safety’ and that the only sane response is to annihilate the threats, is sadly, an illusion all too real and close to home.

I am, frankly, quite fascinated by the concept of safety. My parents used to major in it, attempting to lay restriction after restriction in order to keep their world safe – which gets a bit ridiculous when grown-up children are effectively asked not to live their lives because this, in some mysterious way, threatens the safety of the parents.

What, I want to ask, is so great about safety? When I look around me at people who want to place safety at the top of their list of priorities, I mostly see people who are afraid of life, rather than death. ‘Safety’ for them seems to constitute some kind of insulation that means they won’t have to face difficult situations, encounter life-changing challenges, experience other perspectives or feel any emotion outside their day-to-day fear.

And this doesn’t only get expressed on a grandiose scale. I know of plenty of writers who are afraid to step outside their comfort zone for fear of criticism, reprisal or rejection. Here, all too often, the words ‘public’ and ‘national’ are replaced with ‘financial’, followed closely by something akin to acceptability, as if writing anything that is not universally liked is some kind of sin. How very strange.

Surely, the whole point of being a writer is exploration and experimentation. ‘Safety’ is hardly going to be conducive to that. And the mistaken belief that there is some kind of externally verifiable standard, against which all pieces of writing can be measured, is … well, mistaken.

It is axiomatic that what one person enjoys, another will consider trivial, or what someone over here calls ‘genius’, another over there will describe as ‘tedious’. Thus, it is both impossible, as well as undesirable, to write a piece that will please everyone – a piece that is entirely ‘safe’.

I don’t believe the function of writing, from the writer’s perspective, is to please any specific audience. That function may, perhaps, belong to the bookseller or the publisher. The function of the writer is, surely, to communicate something, to express something, about who they are. To share something from their soul. I doubt that ‘safety’ is going to provide useful guidelines to doing that.

This is nothing to do with being deliberately provocative, obnoxious or titillating, although the resulting piece may end up being all of these. Indeed, attempting to be unsafe as a combative policy can be just as false and constraining as attempting to be safe.

This is much more to do with listening to one’s inner voice and identifying the demons that have sovereignty there. Entering a dialogue with them is a genuine adventure that others will recognise by its authenticity.

‘Safety’ is, in my opinion, vastly over-rated. It is generally a sad substitute for what one could have been, could have experienced and could have participated in. When I look back, at the of my life, am I really going to want to say: “I’m so glad I played it safe”?


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