It’s a lovely sunny spring morning. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, there is blossom on the trees and close by a blackbird sings. You are about to go out of your front door. You can’t wait to greet the day. To breathe the fresh air, to feel human and free. You are clasping the door handle when the phone rings. You reach for the receiver. There’s a voice on the other end. He says he’s your friend. He’s ringing you to tell you there is man stood outside your door. He holds a gun and is pointing it at where you’re about to walk.
You put the phone down, but not before saying thanks. You’re not going out of your house now. You’re not going to enjoy your afternoon. You’re not going to breathe that refreshing air or feel that invigorating breeze against your cheek, but you don’t resent this. In fact, you feel lucky to be alive. And you feel nothing but gratitude to that telephonic Samaritan.
As Freud observed in his essay, Civilization and its Discontents, there is and always has been a complicated symbiosis between personal licence and public prohibition, and the more discontented there are then the more civilization and its prohibitions are validated, and as these prohibitions grow, the more discontent arises. And so on.
There are a lot of social forces at the moment calling for infringements on our civil liberties in order for our safety and general good. Civilization is constantly on the brink of collapse. We are told, in order to be safe, we must surrender our DNA, mobile phone numbers, bank details and other personal information, to the state. In the wake of so many terrorist attacks, child abductions, raping and murdering, it is surely counter to common sense to argue against the logic of this. And yet, that is exactly what I would like to do here.
Have there in fact been so many threats to our safety that we must give up our liberty? In a population of 60 million and growing, I feel we need a sense of perspective here. In fact, we are as safe as we have ever been in our history. Safe from disease, early mortality, conscription, workhouses and forced labour. We are safer than our parents were and safer still than our grandparents. So why are we so afraid? The answer is of course to be found in this newspaper, any newspaper, radio station or television programme.
You’re afraid because they have told you there is a man outside your door? Does he exist or not? You’re not willing to take the chance. You will stay inside and bolt your locks. Today is a very special day: the launch of a brand new TV show called Reality 24:7. It’s a brand new concept and runs round the clock seven days a week. It’s on every one of your 856 channels. The whole world is watching, and this time it is really really real. I kid you not.
originally published in the Telegraph and Argus, Friday March 7th 2008