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Mothers and Terrorists. Perception of Risk and the Increase in Moral Outrage

August 27, 2016

 

A friend recently left her 3 year old daughter in the car to run into school (80 metres away) and collect her son. On returning to her car on this cool winters day, angry parents greeted her using verbal expletives and accused her of neglectful parenting. One man was so outraged he was threatening to “call someone”. The little girl in the car was cowering in her seat, unwell, wishing the angry mob would go away so she could continue listening to her Cinderella CD. My friend spent the rest of the day with depressive feelings and self doubt, crushed under the judgment of others.

 

The legalities

In the USA, it is illegal to leave children in a car in 19 of the 50 states. Even then, there are differing age ranges and time limits specified. What is considered illegal may be a matter of perception of risk. www.kidsandcars.org

In Australia, each state/territory has slightly differing laws. In 3 states (QLD, VIC, TAS), a penalty may be given if an unreasonable amount of time has passed without provision, supervision and care for the safety of the child. In 2 states (WA and NSW), if a child is left for an amount of time that causes the child to become distressed or their health is deemed to be at risk, then it becomes an offence. SA and NT currently do not have specific legislation covering unattended children in cars, but legislation that states parents can be charged with an offence if children are left in a dangerous situation. www.slatergordon.com.au

Perception of risk

What has piqued my interest are the words “perception of risk”.

The Institute of Risk Management in London explains, “Risk perception is a highly personal process of decision making, based on an individual’s frame of reference developed over a lifetime, among many other factors.”

 

“In the face of contradictory information, people must rely on their instincts as much as the facts to size up potential threats.”

Tania Lombrozo, Psychology Professor at the University of California, also gives us some insight into today's risk perception, “Many parents who grew up playing outdoors with friends, walking alone to the park or to school, and enjoying other moments of independent play are now raising children in a world with very different norms. In the United States today, leaving children unsupervised is grounds for moral outrage and can lead to criminal charges.”

The moral judgement research

Professor Lombrozo examines the idea that children are more unsafe today than years passed, but she identified statistics from a National Victimisation Survey that do not back this up. She then considers new research (by developmental psychologists at University of California, Irvine) that suggests it is more likely that moral attitudes toward parenting have changed, “such that leaving children unsupervised is now judged morally wrong. And because it's judged morally wrong, people overestimate the risk.”

 

The research gave people a hypothetical scenario. The age, duration of time and location of the child being left alone stayed the same, but the reason for the adult leaving the child varied. It showed that the reason for the child being left influenced the perceived risk. A very interesting study.

 

Photo:

Tania Lombrozo  -  Psychology Professor

(University of California)

 

Tania Lombrozo concludes, “Each kid is different, of course, and the people best qualified to decide how much responsibility and independence any given child can handle are that child's parents. Parents' rights to make these decisions should be respected unless there is a clear, immediate and significant risk to the child's safety.”

 

I, too have felt the pressure of our times - to ascribe to a fear of a perceived risk - the fear of Muslims and terrorists.

 

Over-reactions and under-reactions

A newspaper article by Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert outlines the public's reaction to risk and gives 4 reasons why some risks are seen to be more or less serious than others (summarised by Bruce Schneier):

    1.   We over-react to intentional actions, and under-react to accidents, abstract events, and natural phenomena.
    2.   We over-react to things that offend our morals.
    3.   We over-react to immediate threats and under-react to long-term threats.
    4.   We under-react to changes that occur slowly and over time.

The National Safety Council has been compiling and reporting on injury data in the USA since the 1920's. They have collated the odds of dying from specific incidents. The chance of being killed in a terrorist attack is 1 in 20 million. You are 1,048 times more likely to die from a car accident and 17,600 times more likely of dying from heart disease than a terrorist attack (currently heart disease is the leading cause of death in Australia and the USA).

 

 

But for some, these statistics mean nothing. Because, as Professor Gilbert mentioned (above, point 1), “we over-react to intentional actions, and under-react to accidents, abstract events, and natural phenomena.” The focus and hype the government and media places on a specific event creates fear of an incident that has proved to be of very minimal risk.

A society living in fear

The culture of our society has slowly begun to shift towards fear, retribution, loud negative voices and judgments on others using perceived risk that may be completely overestimated. (Therefore, terrorism has been effective in doing what its name implies: inspiring intense fear.)

Are we narrowing our world with our views? Are our morals and outlooks being offended? Are we perceiving mothers, religions and whole people groups fairly?

My challenge to myself is to look at my own judgments. Am I perceiving a risk that is based on fear and irrational beliefs? How do I pull myself up in these situations and operate in peace and offer compassion, understanding and empathy where it is rightly deserved.

Obviously I will speak up if I perceive clear, immediate and significant risk, but it must be done with kindness and compassion. We do not fully know each others circumstances.

1 Corinthians 13 says, “...no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.” and later on suggests for us to “love extravagantly”. What does that look like in practice to you? To me it means making an effort to be kind to everyone and especially where others choose not to.

 

Be kind. And love where it is unexpected.

 

Belinda has always enjoyed expressing herself. Her mediums have included dance, painting, writing, text messages and performing for local theatre companies. In 2010 she was invited to write comment articles for Press Service International which culminated in her winning the 'Basil Seller's Australian Young Writer of the Year' in 2015. Her writing is now published at cinemafaith.com and periecho.com. Belinda lives on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia.

 

See previous articles by Belinda Croft

 



 

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