I’m not sure, but I think it was in the movie Hot Shots Part Deux: there’s a map in the background of one scene that shows Iraq and, where Iran should be, there’s a label that reads ‘A Hard Place’. Although the fact that at this point in time we are literally stuck between Iraq and a hard place makes this visual joke less funny. Our whole notion of acceptable risk in nearly every aspect of our daily lives has become a total – and more than slightly disturbing – farce.

While it’s mildly amusing to chuckle about the American businessman who insured his box of expensive cigars against fire and claimed on the insurance after he smoked them, only to be counter-sued by the insurance company for arson after he’d received the pay-out, the whole ‘nanny state’, cotton-wool culture that encroaches on all our daily lives isn’t that funny any more.

Risk is seen as something that must be eradicated, and so-called ‘due care and attention’ is being stretched to such an extreme that we are all treated as potential victims – with an innate right to blame everyone else for our own misfortune or stupidity.
In the town where I live, it is now illegal for traders to have a sandwich-board display on the pavement in front of their premises. Why? Well, someone decided that under new disability legislation this represented an obstruction that people might trip over.

The same logic has been applied to venues that pay for a pavement licence for outdoor tables, etc. If you have tables with chairs and umbrellas, you now have to have a ‘barrier’ around them so nobody trips over them. The twisted rationale here is that if someone walked into a table, the venue could be held liable and sued. If someone collides with the barrier, the venue is ostensibly covered. Since the tables are usually bigger than the barriers, I wonder which will be less easy to notice. I also wonder why people don’t have the individual sense of responsibility and a basic awareness of cause and effect to simply watch where they’re going.

Even Apple’s trendy iPod may not be immune to this growing victim mentality. According to the British Society of Audiology, there’s a real risk that listening to your iPod – or any other such player – could lead to permanent hearing damage. Since playing an iPod at around 104 decibels is apparently louder than a pneumatic drill, noise-induced hearing loss can be caused when the delicate hair nerves that cover inner-ear structures suffer trauma. The recommended solution is to limit your listening to one hour a day and, of course, to keep the volume down. In the current litigious climate, we could see Apple being required to put cigarette packet-like labels on iPods, warning users that they could seriously damage their hearing – even though it is the user who invariably chooses how high they wish to set the volume level.

So where does individual responsibility begin and a reasonable level of consumer protection end? Could it be that all these well-meaning intentions to protect us from practically everything are making us believe that life is essentially risk-free, and that if something does happen to us it’s got to be someone else’s fault?

Or, like the restaurant that suggested it should label its napkins to prevent the elderly clientele from eating them by mistake, is all this legal cotton-wool concern a little patronizing, if not downright insulting? Don’t we as individuals have some choice and responsibility for what we do as well?
The US comedian Bill Hicks had two routines that I always particularly liked. The first one was where he lit up a cigarette and then asked how many non-smokers there were in the audience.
When, as one might expect with American audiences, a large portion of the audience applauded, he would remind them that, smug as they might seem, non-smokers died everyday.

The other sketch I really liked was the one about people being upset because someone on LSD killed themselves by jumping out of a tall building thinking they could fly – as though it was the fault of the LSD. However, as Bill said, if they really thought they could fly, why didn’t they try to take off from the ground just to make sure. The fact that they didn’t, from his point of view, simply meant that there was one less moron.

Like it or not, in many respects, it’s the element of risk that makes life worth living. If listening to your iPod for more than an hour a day makes you happy, shouldn’t that be your choice?
Case in point. Oxygen is a prerequisite for life on earth, yet it is also what eventually kills all of us, being responsible for ageing and other cellular deterioration, which – even with no help from anything else – will eventually do for all of us. So what are we going to do? Limit our consumption? Sue somebody for not warning us that breathing will eventually kill us? OK, maybe in America, unless being between Iraq and a hard place doesn’t kill everyone there first.

As Amercian playwright Henry Miller once said, freedom means the strict inner precision of a Swiss watch, combined with absolute recklessness. These days it seems that the great majority of people feel they can jump into the swimming pool of life only with multiple life-belts hung round their necks – even though more often than not it’s the lifebelts that sink them. But any semblance of genuine progress comes not through adaptation, but through daring, through obeying that blind urge.

The French surrealist artist René Crevel once observed that “no daring is fatal”. Like it or not, even shallow living isn’t entirely risk-free. MW