The Modern Survival Guide #75
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I am fascinated by modern lies, the little falsehoods we tell ourselves about the way the world works and what that means for our lives. One of the big ones, and certainly one of the most pernicious is, in my humble opinion, the following:
In order to live well, we must invest in absolute personal security.
Now, I can see where some readers would give me a cross-eyed look at this point. In this series I make a big deal about risk reduction and personal vigilance. Plus there’s the common sense angle — am I really saying that we shouldn’t think about our own security as part and parcel of modern survival?
Well, no, I’m not saying that. But part of risk awareness, part of personal vigilance, and a big part of modern survival is to understand that absolute security is, in many ways, a pipe dream. Here’s why.
The Lie of “Security”
Let’s look at what security means and how it’s sold in the modern world (and I’m choosing my words with care in that sentence). If we go for a dictionary definition of security, we will probably find something like this:
Security: A state of being free from danger or threat.
Very few people want to be threatened or in danger in their daily lives. This makes security a valuable commodity. It makes it very tempting to sell products, services, and ideologies that promise security from one thing or another, and this has infected our culture to a staggering degree.
Turn on the TV, and you’ll see endless ads shilling home alarm systems. Go to YouTube, and you can download endless hours of personal defense courses and home invasion defense tutorials. Listen to politicians, and you’ll be promised protection from every possible malady under the sun. Go to a rich neighborhood and look around; see all the fancy locks and security cameras.
We’ve been told that we must do certain things to make our lives secure, to achieve the state of security. And that’s a lie. There is no such thing as being totally free from danger or threat. Someday, somehow, you are going to die. That’s all there is to it. Everything else is risk reduction. Where we get confused as a society is in mistaking risk reduction for risk removal. The former is prudence; the latter is the modern security industry.
I’ve lived long enough to see some practical examples of what I call “security delusions” — products, ideas, and social tropes that people buy into in order to feel like they are making an effort towards ultimate security. I have stories to tell, but frankly none of them should surprise you; I’m sure you have your own examples.
I remember working with a man who owned something like twenty different kinds of assault rifles and combat shotguns.¹ When asked why, he would go on a long and involved description of the precise use case for each weapon, every one of which relied on the premise of a home invasion or a complete breakdown of human society. He was in his mid-forties and grossly obese.
I remember walking down the sidewalk in an upscale residential neighborhood and looking at the high-tech locking mechanism on a garden gate. The wall adjoining it was maybe four and a half feet tall, and had a smooth brick top.
I remember reading an article about the invasive nature of new TSA scanners with sufficient resolution to build a detailed contour map of a suspect’s body. TSA was eventually forced to remove the scanners out of privacy concerns. They went with a different company that generated worse scans. We all keep walking through these scanners in the airport, and they routinely fail audits.
I remember meeting a woman at a wedding had who home-schooled all her children in order to keep them away from the corrosive elements of an ungodly society. She was convinced that if she allowed them to go to public schools they’d turn atheist, or start playing Dungeons and Dragons and accidentally summon at demon during lunch break. I later saw one of her kids listening to Eminem on his smartphone.
I remember a coworker who zipped from one diet fad to the next, following the trend of whichever one promised the longest life. So far he’s tried vegetarian, vegan, paleo, keto, and Mediterranean diets, and shows no signs of slowing down.
And, of course, there are tens of millions of Americans who are adamant about refusing to allow asylum-seekers into the US on the grounds they might be criminals or terrorists.
These are all security delusions — examples of people making tiny decisions and huge decisions, sometimes life-altering decisions, with the goal of achieving security. They are, in each case, doomed to failure. Attempting to convince the people involved that this is the case is, in each case, also doomed to failure. They are too invested in the delusion.
Security delusions perpetuate the Security Lie. They are seductive, because they offer the promise that if you control this one thing, your life will be more secure. But they are rarely entirely logical, they tend to rely on bad or poorly applied science, and they often exist to push products. The gun industry has made billions on the delusion that the more firearms you own, the more secure you are in your home, for example.²
Dangers of the Security Lie
The danger of the Security Lie is that it leads to bad security decisions — it leads to you misusing resources or making poor assumptions. That doesn’t sound too bad in the abstract, but the trouble is that security choices are based on fear and control. Fear is a very destructive motivating force when it comes to making intelligent choices, and control is, at best, an illusion.
If I’m making a security decision based on fear, my reaction is characterized by an assumption of worst-case scenarios. For example, the policy preference for closed borders in the US is dependent on people assuming that illegal immigrants — ALL illegal immigrants — are guaranteed to include bad hombres. This is not necessarily true, ignores the reality of crime statistics in general, and does not apply to all kinds of illegal immigrants, but has become the defining feature of the immigration debate.
Fear-based reactions lead to abuses, waste, and, critically, often do not affect the true source of a problem. To continue the immigration example, we’re spending billions of dollars to close the southern border, creating concentration camps for illegal immigrants, and somehow or other the illegal immigrants are still coming. We’re wasting money, perpetrating human rights abuses, hurting our national image, damaging our relationships with our closest neighbors, and not solving the problem.
If I’m making a security decision based on control, I’m trying to exert control over a fundamentally unstable circumstance. The gun owner who stockpiles guns and ammo in preparation for a home invasion is attempting to exert control, not by removing the risk of an event happening, but by changing the options available to them if it does. This is an attempt to exercise power over an event that is mostly out of their control.
But of course, simply having a gun in the home does not reduce one’s risk of a home invasion. Home invasions are typically perpetrated by deranged people who don’t care or don’t know about the presence of a gun; sane criminals wait until the owner is out of the house before they try to rob it, and having a gun in the house may actually increase its value as a target (because guns are expensive). On the flip side, having a gun in the house does increase the risk of death by gunshot for the residents of the house.
What seems like common sense security is actually, in many cases, either ineffective or counterproductive.
As I’ve mentioned in other discussions of risk in this series, it is very important when discussing risk to make certain you understand the assumptions that go into risk mitigation. Making the assumption that the worst case event will happen is usually not the correct choice. Making the assumption that risks are controllable is often even worse. We are in desperate need of a more rational culture of security in the modern age.
Rational Risk Judgement
Let’s start with a simple assumption: All of life is risk. We know this, or we should. I cannot reduce my risk entirely; I cannot ever have total security. Even if I sit quietly in a secure room and eat perfectly nutritious food for my whole life, I can still die from all kinds of natural disasters, and I will still die of illness at some point. Any step you take out the door massively magnifies your risk, and most of us have to go outside at some point, if only to go to work.
So if all life is risk, and I cannot ever have total security from all threats, but I still want to live a long life, the only conclusion to draw is that I should treat risk rationally. That means that I should make security decisions based on a risk judgement, and that means I need to know how to judge risk.
Rational risk judgement starts with research to find adequate statistics. You want to find sources that:
- Are accredited
- Are non-partisan
- Specifically address the risk event
Making certain of these three elements is crucial when making risk judgement. Non-accredited sources might as well be the next guy down in the pub; accreditation is a reliability measure. Partisan sources are predisposed to lie or twist facts for their own purposes. Sources that don’t specifically address the risk in question might lead you to incorrect conclusions.
Once you have found good data, making a security decision is all about finding mitigating solutions to risks that are:
The important word here is “mitigate.” To mitigate does not mean to totally remove the risk of something happening; it simply means to lessen it. Within this context, “preventable” means that there is a way to mitigate the risk, a“likely” risk is one that has a known chance of happening to you, and an “understood” risk is one for which a causal variable has been identified.
For example, a mitigable risk would be the risk of contracting measles. We know that measles can be mitigated by avoiding people who have it and by vaccine. If you live in certain parts of the country, it is increasingly likely that you might be exposed to measles. And we know that contracting measles is conditional on being exposed to measles without any source of immunity.
Finally, the security decision should be based on a solution that:
- Is demonstrably effective
- Carries a low risk of bad side-effects
- Is within your resources
To continue the prior example, we know that vaccines mitigate against contracting measles. We know that most people tolerate most vaccines reasonably well, and most people can afford vaccination. Vaccination is therefore a valid response to mitigating the risk of measles.
Note that each of these elements are conditional to the whole solution; if a proposed solution does not meet all three points, it’s not a good solution. For example, the current crackdown on the southern border is likely not a good solution to the problem of illegal overland immigration from Mexico because it is manifestly not stopping illegal overland immigration from Mexico, is creating a pool of intensely negative side effects, and is becoming rapidly more expensive.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result; the definition of poor risk mitigation is trying the same mitigation strategy over and over without changing the risk probability.
Living in an Insecure World
There’s a problem with all this, of course: what if you can’t make a risk judgement? What if we don’t know enough about a risk to provide information or mitigation strategies? What if we simply can’t mitigate a risk? This isn’t a small slice of the risk pie; this may be most risk events. How do we live in this risky, insecure world?
At the start of this series I made the point that a lot of the issues that impact survival in the modern world have to do more with philosophy than with action. Security consciousness is one of the great examples of this phenomenon. In order to develop a rationally secure life, you have to first accept the idea that total security is impossible… then decide which elements of risk you can reasonably mitigate.
And for those events you can’t mitigate… you simply have to live with the risk. There’s nothing I can do if an asteroid is on a collision course with the Earth. There’s nothing I can do, aside from eating well, exercising, and regular doctors checkups, to ensure I don’t have an aneurysm on the way home today. The genetic lottery may simply not be in my favor.
In these situations, I simply must accept the risk, and move on. Live life while it’s mine to life, and don’t worry about things I cannot control.
That’s a hard sell. It will sometimes go against common sense. It will force us to come to terms, at least a bit, with the concept of our mortality. It will sometimes require time and energy to come up with a good mitigation strategy. And it will sometimes feel like we’re doing nothing.
But it’s the only real path. Everything else is just a delusion.
We have to live in an insecure world… and until we come to terms with that, we’re always going to be stressed out, we’re always going to waste resources, and we’re always going to fall for the shills of people who promise safety.
¹For those of you who would argue “there’s no such thing as an assault rifle, that’s a made-up label,” because I know you’re out there, my rebuttal is as follows: When I use the words “assault rifle,” just about everyone instantly knows what I’m talking about — a military-style, semi- or fully-automatic, magazine-fed, long-gun firearm with more accessory options than the average sports car. Don’t pretend you don’t instantly know what I’m talking about. And because we all instantly know what I’m talking about, “assault rifles” are a thing. Also all labels are made up, that’s how language works, so pull your head out of your ass.
²This seems like common sense, but it relies on a number of assumptions. You have to be lucky. You have to be alert. You have to have some training. You have to have enough warning that something bad is about to happen to get to your weapons in time. You have to be careful not to shoot your family members who are wandering around the house looking for a midnight snack. And even with all that, there’s very little scientific evidence to support the premise that having a gun in the home makes you safer overall; most studies point in the opposite direction.