One of the most common phrases that I will never understand is, “Safety First.”
“Now, wait a minute,” you say, backing away from your computer screen with a cynical look on your face. “That’s one that everyone seems to agree with. What’s so bad about ‘Safety First’?”
It’s subtle, I’ll give you that. Yet I still find it strange whenever I think about it. Here’s what I mean:
In all sorts of different situations, all throughout our lives, we receive and give this little piece of advice. And yet, for all of the different things out there that could be our first priority, how on earth did safety arrive at the top of the list? Instead of “Safety First,” why don’t we pat our kids on the head and send them off with, “Bravery First,” or “Integrity First”? “Honor First”? Or how about “Others First”? I think all of these are better as a top priority.
I understand that our main audience for this little aphorism is children, and I realize that kids often have a tendency to forget to be careful when going about their play, but here’s the thing: children become adults, and what they learn as children they usually keep with them forever. Think about it. If a child is told that he is brilliant for his entire youth, he’s going to grow up feeling like he’s pretty smart. If another child is told that he’s stupid all of the time, he’s going to likely grow up and still believe that he’s stupid- regardless of how intelligent he may be. And if a child grows up hearing “Safety First,” what then?
“I’m still not buying it,” you say, “I’m going to go read Buzzfeed.”
Hear me out.
I think one of the biggest problems with our society today is people’s perceived need to protect themselves. When people are impugned, or if one of their faults is even hinted at, they typically respond by closing their ears and becoming defensive. People cut others off on the freeway because “they’d do the same to me.” Someone is mugged in a public place and no one jumps in to help. After all, it’s dangerous over there. Just keep walking. Safety first.
As Thoreau once said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Everyone is afraid. Afraid of losing their job, their savings, their boyfriend, their girlfriend, afraid of getting ripped off at the store, afraid that one of their customers will notice that they’re ripping THEM off…
Is the source of the world’s problems the phrase, “Safety First”? No. Of course not. All I’m saying is that what we learn as children matters. If fear and self-protectiveness are such problems in our society, might we take a little more care not to pass this on to our children? Perhaps we should think about the trite aphorisms we repeat to each other and teach to children before we go and pass on more of the same. Frankly, I think we have all too many timid men in our society, many of whom actively seek to coerce others to live inside the same, foolish safety nets that they weave in desperation. We don’t need more of this sort of adult.
“Have a good day at school, Johnny. Don’t forget to be brave, always do the right thing, and keep your eyes open. Make sure to be careful as you go through your day, but never be afraid.”
Doesn’t that sound better? Now we just need to make it rhyme or something, and maybe it will get mindlessly repeated for the next two hundred years. That probably wouldn’t be such a bad thing.