We don’t see the signs very often, but occasionally we do. Anybody over a certain age will remember the familiar yellow and black rectangular signs that marked Cold War era public fallout shelters. Survivors would be able to go to these shelters following a nuclear attack and be “safe” from radioactive fallout. These signs were a focal point of the “duck and cover” culture, in which we all lived in fear of a Soviet Attack. it now seems strange. An April 1969 Civil Defense Program status update reported that there were 108,854 marked public shelters with room for 104,575,000 individuals. These shelters were stocked with enough food, medicine, and sanitary supplies for each person for up to two weeks, the predicted length of time it would take for it to be safe to go outside, following a nuclear attack.
The cold war is over, so what does a modern fallout shelter look like? What is the 21st century equivalent of the late 20th century need for protection, what fallout do we need to shelter from?
Over the last several years we have seen multiple examples of the new nuclear; the information war. Leaked or hacked information brings scrambling and embarrassment and shame. People are inspired to commit acts of violence based on misinformation. Individual liberty and safety is compromised through the selective spread of information from self appointed truth squads that do their work in relative anonymity. From governmental documents to personal communications we are all potentially at risk. What was once considered private communication can now appear in the headlines, and our social media activity, even if intended for friends and family, is open to scrutiny and sharing. All of us have had “what if we…” exchanges that didn’t necessarily reflect our true thoughts and values, and we definitely wouldn’t want these often knee jerk, off the cuff statements to define us. Our private conversations are very often different than our public discourse; they always have been. We have to assume that everything we write, say, or do can go public, and public is more public than ever; everything, even innocent musings, has the potential to generate fallout.
We are quick to pounce on each other’s foibles. We are quicker to spin our own. Discourse is no longer the free flow of ideas to create the best outcomes, it is now focused on gotcha and redirection. But changing, or altering your opinion is not weakness, adjustability is strength, we must be adaptable and responsive to new information, it is a prerequisite for growth.
The modern, virtual, fallout shelter should focus on developing a new type of culture, a new style of discourse, a way to disagree without being disagreeable. It should create a culture where the permission to misspeak, change our minds, offer suggestions, and maybe even fail, is implicit; a culture of protection where the fear of negative repercussions, lasting reputational harm, and negative categorization of future contributions is banished; a culture where we agree to shelter each other. We are all more than one thing; we all have the potential to be supportive and undermining; we have the potential to be kind and also cruel; we can all be defensive and we can all be accepting. Over time we will be more than one thing, we will be both private and public.
That isn’t to say we don’t have to be accountable for what we say; we do. When malice is the driver of our actions and words, we have to be held accountable. We have to be able to defend our positions, and creating shelter from fallout doesn’t give us free reign to be mean, or to be jerks. We still need to be civil; civility has to be at the center of everything we do.
People need a culture that is safe. A culture that provides shelter from fallout, and encourages sharing ideas and creativity and dreaming of far out possibilities. A culture that ignores the boxes we create around ourselves. A culture that embraces transparency and eliminates fear for everybody; fear of failure and judgment; fear of lasting and permanent fallout. What people ultimately need is safety, security, protection, compassion; they need a culture of shelter from fallout.