Thinking About Risk: Responding to Threat and Disintegration in a Fraught World
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In the United States today, it is hard to escape the sense that we are living in a society saturated by risks—from random gun violence to devastating forest fires to disasters related to crumbling infrastructure. There is a striking disconnect between this reality of pervasive risk and the tendency in some quarters to look at risk through a social constructionist lens that often regards risks as routinely exaggerated. We often point to a growing intolerance of risk, which generates new or intensified forms of intrusive control and is rooted in an essentially irrational longing for a “golden age” when life was more predictable and more stable.
I argue that this perspective fails to grasp the unexpected precariousness and danger of everyday life for many people in many parts of the world. We live in an era in which we are asked to accept as normal risks that in fact are neither normal nor necessary—dangers that we have the material and technological resources to remedy, or at least to substantially reduce. Those “excess” or “surplus” risks are a hallmark of an increasingly heedless version of capitalism—a signal of profound social failure, and one of the defining social issues of our time. That failure offers an opening for transformative social action—if we are willing to seize it. I explore these issues through the lens of two risks that are unusually prevalent in the United States today—racialized inner-city violence and mass shootings.
KeywordsClimate change Mass shootings Racial disparities Social Constructionism Mental illness United States Homicide Risk denial
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