March 17, 2021 - 10:54am

The government, according to The Times, has announced a raft of new measures meant to “reassure” women of their safety. One eye-catching pilot scheme will assign plain clothed police to patrol bars and nightclubs to look out for “predatory and suspicious offenders” who may intend to harass and women. Boris Johnson announced that “we must drive out violence against women and girls and make every part of the criminal justice system work to better protect and defend them”.

That makes sense — but many of these schemes do not. Of all the ideas that could’ve been chosen to ‘reassure’ women of their safety, the government opted for the worst: a nightlife Mukhabarat. This is the logical end result of a culture that fetishises ‘safety’ at all times and in all places — to the point where it degrades social freedom.

It is notable that in this case the responsibility for ‘protection’ is contracted out to the state, which has a proclivity to exploit any crisis to increase its power. Whenever a terrorist attack occurs the state always seeks to beef-up anti-terror legislation to the point of harming civil liberties in the name of protection. Likewise, the pandemic has served as cover for the Tories to attempt to legislate an anti-protest bill that will give the police more powers to restrict the right to protest during the pandemic (and probably beyond).

This turn towards safetyism is the result of what Erich Fromm once called the “fear of freedom”, where freedom, in our fragmented and alienated society, feels like a burden and a conduit to danger. Then, fellow human beings start to fear one another. In the book of the same name, Fromm noted that the “modern man is still anxious and tempted to surrender his freedom to dictators of all kinds.” At the time, the author was describing the appeal of fascism, but today, his argument could apply more or less unchanged to the culture of safety.

Relieving people of the burden of freedom in order to make them feel safe is a cliché of authoritarianism. Trading in freedom for state ‘protection’ rarely makes people actually more safer. Quite the opposite: you end up without freedom or safety. In fact, it compounds people’s anxiety, heightens their perceived insecurity and only makes them more aware of how little self-determination they have over their own lives.

If we want to stop being a society of “frightened individuals” as Fromm described, we have to understand and embrace the burden and responsibility that comes with freedom. This will never involve stuffing nightclubs and pubs with undercover coppers. Above all we must make our own choices, and never expect a ‘higher’ authority to do it for us.

Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.