Our perception of risk and how it informs our acceptance of difference

I’ve been thinking about how we judge each other’s choices, and that how much risk we choose to take or avoid is one area in which judgment can fall quite heavily. It’s easy for that to happen, especially when we think someone else is risking health or life itself. Fear can feel a lot like wisdom or truth, and it’s easy to think that what it counsels is the only responsible path.

I grew up in a risk-avoidant family that had a special focus on me (I felt) in terms of what we the kids were allowed to do. I grew up feeling pretty scared and incompetent. It wasn’t until I moved out to the west coast and started hiking that I began to feel strong and delight in that strength and ability that my body possessed. As a parent, I have tried hard to invite and make space for my kids to take risks, to learn by doing, to find what works for them.

Potential risk, the possibility of danger, of negative outcomes, are all used to push people away from some choices and toward others. I think that the price of freedom, though, is opening up multiple paths and possibilities, knowing that some people will push the limits, will make poor choices, and will experience sometimes very negative consequences. Trying to legislate and control actions at too fine-tuned a level in order to attempt to ensure a limited range of results that fall within the parameters a person or organization decides is acceptable can mean throwing the baby out with the bath water, though, and can lead to a rigid hierarchy that depresses creativity, innovation, and mutual understanding.

Of course, we all have areas in which we’re willing to accept greater and lesser risk. Expecting consistency across the board in a human individual or group is not useful. I support much greater gun controls than we have currently, for example, because I think that allowing everyone who wants one to have a gun (a freedom) is not worth the risk of so many people losing their lives either by accident or on purpose. I would argue that it is responsible to limit access to something that is designed to kill.

However, I am completely in support of 100& access to abortion for women. Will some women have late-term abortions of fetuses that could certainly be healthy outside the womb? Yes, a few. Mostly, I think that allowing free access to abortion will mean that women and children will not suffer the sometimes devastating results of forced birth.

I can entirely see why that appears to be a huge contradiction to someone whose beliefs are different from mine.

I also think that we have prioritized the desired elimination of pain (impossible, regardless) to the extent that we are afraid of illness, afraid of death. And that informs the conversation (difficult to have, given the passions on either side) about vaccines. People who are pro-vaccine feel that it is ridiculously evident that avoiding disease, both for themselves and for everyone else, is so important that anyone who doesn’t get their kids vaccinated is a fool, irresponsible, a terrible parent, a bad human being, etc. People who are anti-vaccine are so focused on the potential side-effects of vaccines (and they do exist), that they can see pro-vaccine people as being equally ignorant, irresponsible, etc.

The thing is, no one is in complete possession of the truth, which is often more multi-layered and complex than we can see from our current point of view. And belief is not the same thing as truth. People used to believe the earth was flat, that the sun rotated around the earth, that women’s wombs were detached and would float up and get entangled in the brain leading to hysteria, that only humans are smart enough to use tools, that girls were the result of defective sperm, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

And yet, some truths aren’t provable, either because the science isn’t there yet, or we’re not looking in the right places or asking the right questions, or because it’s not a question of science at all. And in those cases, belief and truth can be indistinguishable from each other.

This question of who gets to decide, whose beliefs are the basis for policy, law, and procedure is a huge question that impacts everyone in society, but is also an unanswerable, irreconcilable question. There are people and groups who believe it to be straightforward, that their beliefs are also the Truth. I believe that a democratic society strives to make room for all of these sometimes wildly opposed beliefs and views, to achieve a balance that avoids the catastrophic results of imposing one way upon a plurality.

That is why our Constitution is built upon the concert of separation of Church and State, to try to avoid the establishment of a state religion which could impose its beliefs on the populace, regardless of the existence of divergent beliefs.

Accepting basic, fundamental differences is a spiritual practice that is one of the most challenging in life. And that is partly because the perceived risks one sees in one’s life or others can be so great, and the human desire to avoid harm is so powerful, that it becomes impossible to see any room between belief and truth, and one’s belief can become a hammer.

I believe in the power of plurality, multiculturalism, and opportunity, because only then can people and groups see possibilities and a greater percentage of sky. But it isn’t simple, that’s for sure.

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One thought on “Our perception of risk and how it informs our acceptance of difference

  1. […] c) it’s not my risk tolerance that’s important here, but his. An interesting test of my previous post about risk and judgment. Thank you universe, for this chance to learn and be tested. I am grateful, really, I am. […]

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