Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Is Your Quest For Safety Putting You In Danger?

You CAN be too cautious

I play the ancient Chinese game Go with my daughter when she’s in town, an old tradition for us.  I love that game, its rules easier to learn than chess’s but yielding a game that’s more strategically complex, and rich in life lessons. 

One big take-away from our game yesterday is about the perils of over-cautiousness.  Every move makes a difference to your chances of winning.  You have to watch your back always but if you’re too cautious you miss opportunities to advance and while your missing them, your opponent builds his or her advantage.  Safety is crucial but too much safety is deadly to your chances of winning. 

Being unnecessarily cautious weakens you in this game but also in the game of real life, not just by making you inefficient.  When you’re collaborating, not competing, you’re bid for extra safety can imperil others, setting off armor races, runaway competitions for safety.

You may be experiencing armor races in your love life.  The world is experiencing them in politics, wealth accumulation and military strategy.  Armor races may be the death of life as we know it. They certainly can be the death of a love relationship.

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Military strategy

Arms races are largely the product of safety over-reach, opponents each vying for just a little more margin of safety. 

To promote our safety we have a number of nukes.  Wouldn’t we be safer still with more nukes?  In fact no.  Nukes are ambiguously useful for attack or defense, arms or armor.  The more nukes we have for defense, the more we threaten our neighbors with attack, and they too want their margin of safety, so they too build out their self-protective arsenals.  In military strategy, arms races are armor races because arms and armor are easily mistaken for each other.  We should collectively fear the effects of nuclear winter, the still-real threat that some over-protective zealots will start a nuclear exchange that clouds the air with enough ash to trigger a sudden mass extinction.  All in the name of self-protection.

Wealth accumulation

One of the great mysteries of our time is why billionaires hoard more money than they can possibly use.  One possible explanation is because it’s fun; another, because it’s a sign of success and status, a margin of psychological safety that only gets better the wider it is. 

But do margins only get better the wider they are?  Like weapons, money can be used both defensively and offensively. The Koch Brothers may claim that their campaigns against government are for self-protection, but the general impression is that they’re on the attack, or if not, at least that they’re doing themselves long-term damage by fortressing their wealth at the middle class and poor’s expense.  In our growing crony capitalism plutocracy, billionaires are bullying the government into submission. Their self-protective solution?  Since most are libertarians, it’s to weaken government.  Is it good for them?  It’s reassuring certainly, but it’s likely a devil’s bargain.  Soon they’ll be operating in a world so crippled that there will be no place safe for them or us.

Politics

“We deserve more!” is the driver behind most political movements.  Sometimes the demand is justified.  We honor the civil rights and women’s movements because, in fact minorities and women do deserve more.  But many other movements are driven unjustifiably by the same sentiment, amassing support by feeding on people’s fear that they’re threatened, movements that move for more than their fair share.  

The self-proclaimed victims become the bullies.  One man’s defense is another man’s attack warranting counter-attack.  Islamic fundamentalists, Israel, The Tea Party, The Republican Party.  Their paranoia is palpable. And perilous to them and us all.

Overwhelming psychological evidence suggests that we tend to become more conservative when we’re fearful.  Is conservatism making us safer?  Ask a conservative and he’ll definitely say yes.  I’d say no. These days many conservatives claim to be libertarians, but when you double click on their beliefs, they always seem much more concerned with protecting and extending their own personal freedoms as they perceive them, and exhibit a reckless disregard to the cost of their extended freedom to others, a cost that could come back to bite them.

In love

Love is a negotiation at intimate range between two people’s quests for freedom and safety, wherein one person’s demand for safety can limit the other person’s freedom and one person’s freedom can threaten another person’s safety.  As such, your demands for safety are honorable and worthy, but are not without their cost.  The more safety you demand, the less freedom your partner has, and that’s a threat to your safety. At some point your partner may find your demands simply too oppressive to be worth it and leave you.  A fear-driven campaign to prevent your partner from leaving you can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

The upshot is this:  You can’t be too careful about your tendency to be too careful.  It can put you in serious danger.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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