Joan Bakewell: At the risk of offending you...

The vast majority of us die in our beds. So why do we have such a distorted sense of risk?
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The Independent Online

How much at risk do you feel as you launch into your day? How fearful are you on stepping outside your front door? Muggers, road rage, MRSA bugs in hospitals, druggies in the shopping precinct, paedophiles in schools - all fuel our sense of panic. And then there's war with Iran, bird flu and global warming. The public narrative would have us believe we are living high-risk lives, besieged on every side by threats to our well-being from an alienated society and a world falling to wave after wave of disasters.

But such risks rarely touch our individual lives: bird flu has killed relatively few people so far; Iran and America have embarked on a diplomatic quadrille that will come and go to the rhythm of local politics in America and the Middle East for many a year yet; Britain has a historically low murder rate, and crime is, in fact, falling. According to the Registrar General's statistics, only .03 per cent of us will die from external causes - that is, causes other than illness - in any one year. Children even lower - .005 per cent. The vast majority of us die in our beds.

So why do we have such a distorted sense of personal risk. In a speech to the Royal Society for the Arts last year, Sir Paul Judge, its chairman, explored the degree of this distortion and how it holds back our impulse to experiment and innovate. He cites the 1993 boating accident in Lyme Bay when four children drowned.

There was media uproar, a call for "something to be done", and a campaign for the statutory regulation of holiday adventure centres. As a consequence, some 1,500 adventure centres were identified as needing a licence; just 888 applied of which all but 13 were granted. The other 600 closed down because they couldn't afford the bureaucracy.

So, since 1996, millions of adventure opportunities have been missed. Children whose lives are hedged within city limits, whose horizons range from electronic games to television and back again are no longer enjoying the freedom and character-building exploits adventure holidays once brought them. What's more, according to Sir Paul, relevant officials at the time conceded in private that the Lyme Bay accident would still have occurred, even with the regulations in place, as a consequence of "an unforeseen combination of factors".

Ideas are being hedged, too. The Tate Gallery has recently withheld from an exhibition a sculpture by John Latham, called God is Great (#2). Latham is fascinated by ideologies as expressed in books. And books - torn, burned, distorted - feature in his evocative and thrilling pieces. God is Great (#2) incorporates copies of the Koran, Bible and Talmud pierced by a sheet of glass.

In the wake of the 7 July bombing, it was felt that to show such a work could be "considered wilfully provocative or somehow interpreted as a political act". I can perfectly see that some outraged fanatic might well assault it with a hammer, destroy the work and be the hero of his cause. Such an act of vandalism would itself demonstrate the very dangers Latham seeks to highlight.

Was it a risk worth taking? In the immediate and particular instant probably not, just as long as the work goes on show soon. It has beauty and dignity and deserves to be seen. But it's a reminder that with recent legislation against incitement to hatred, the arts world will have to face up more and more to the risk of offending. It is in the nature of art to operate at the radical edge of ideas. The phrase "at the risk of offending you ..." has never been more apposite. We need the resolve to face up to the challenge and take the risk.

We want to control the future and we can't. And such is man's hubris that the idea of circumstances and events beyond his control merely challenges him to tighten his grip. So if we can't guarantee a certain outcome, then we'll sue - the doctors, the social workers, the teachers - anyone we can hold responsible for life going wrong. Or, we'll scapegoat some public figure, harass and mock them out of their jobs in order to satisfy the need for total order, absolute certainty.

But events, dear boy, events. We can't predict what will come slamming into our lives from nowhere. At the height of the nuclear scare in the 1960s, I had friends who were planning to bring up their family well away from mounting superpower confrontation, on the world's remotest island, volcanic Tristan da Cunha. Before they had time to embark, it had a spectacular eruption and its population had to be shipped away to safety - in England.

We need to take risks with inventions, with business ventures, and most of all with ideas. The last great political risk, at least in my lifetime, was the Cuba crisis of 1962 when, at the height of the Cold War, Kennedy and Khrushchev went eyeball to eyeball over missiles deployed by Russia in Cuban bases.

For two weeks, the world held its breath. Any minute we expected the brilliant flash in the sky, the deadly rumble of catastrophe that would signal the start of World War III. We sat tight and did nothing. There was nothing to be done. Finally at 6pm, 26 October, Khrushchev sent Kennedy a telegram. The Americans' response: "The other fellow just blinked". It had been a chilling moment.

So by all means take care crossing the road, check the car's brakes, have the flu jabs. But don't think we can eliminate risk. It's part of being alive.

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