Adversarialism and the Politicisation of Safety

Adversarialism and the Politicisation of Safety

imageOne of the by-products of binary thinking is adversarialism that is, the framing of being by oppositionalism. Adversarialism shapes its sense of being by what it is not. It doesn’t know what it believes but rather what it doesn’t believe. It defines itself over against ‘the other’ who it demonises. The old propaganda line ‘if you are not for us, you must be against us’ is the lie of this mindset. Adversarialsim and oppositionalism are the great strategies of propaganda. (If you want to know more about the strategies of propaganda this is a great read ). Propaganda is also a strategy of binary safety.

I had a friend who was recently ‘counselled’ in his organization, not for denigrating the ideology of zero harm but for simply not supporting it. He was told if he didn’t actively support it, his job was under threat. The old propaganda line was used ‘if you are not for us, you must be against us’ was invoked. ‘If you don’t believe zero you must want people harmed’, he was told. What crazy binary logic.

Adversarialism-as-propaganda recently evoked outrage across Britain as David Cameron suggested that anyone who was not for his politics of bombing Syria must be a terrorist sympathizer ( Politically, this is the strategy of the autocrat, total control and all those in opposition to the gas chamber.

In the end, adversarialism is not about the common good but rather self interest. It is reactive not proactive. This has been revealed recently in the Royal Commisssion into Union Corruption where safety has been used as a propaganda tool for self interest rather than safety


Adversarialism is founded on binary logic. It works like this. Ask someone if they are a Christian and when they say ‘no’, accuse them of being a witch. No other position is accepted (agnostic, atheist), you become a devil worshipper under binary logic and must be punished. Don’t suggest this is some irrelevant by-gone idea of the Salem trials ( ). When a Cabinet Minister choses to use such language to denigrate women it shows that the same binary autocratic dynamic is at work (( ). The propagandic slogan ‘You are with us or against us’ is alive and well in Australian politics and in safety. What a great strategy for burning people you don’t like. There is no in-between. A study of McCarthyism would be instructive. A study of Linkedin is similarly instructive. (

Adversarialism is appealing and bounded by fear, it is simplistic and espouses security in the name of the enemy and ‘the other’.

I remember the days of the Menzies era when the old fear of ‘reds under the bed’ kept him in power but was based on a great propaganda line that kept Australia in the dark ages till the 1970s. Propaganda was the great adversarial tool of the cold war ( ). I remember being told as a kid that one either voted Liberal or one was a Communist. So Liberal was deemed ‘christian’ (sic) and Labour was Communist (apparently). This is how binary seduction, adversarialism and propaganda logic works.

Tannen’s work is helpful when thinking about the seduction and politicization of binary thinking. She particularly highlights the problem of binary language in her excellent book ‘The Argument Culture’. As a specialist in linguistics ( she knows that the primary tool for propaganda is words and semiotics.

Anchoring people to a binary mindset and framing reality in terms of oppositionalism and adversarialism is the task of the propagandist. This is what binary safety seeks to do. It seeks autocracy through the binary politicization of safety. There is no in-between, there is no grey, everything is black and white. Safety is either fast or slow, safety is either 1 or 2. This is why Safety wants measures and absolutes, it doesn’t want subjective values like ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, ‘ALARP’ or ‘Due Diligence’. Autocracy seeks control not understanding. Autocracy is not interested in learning, it seeks self and power. Under binary adversarialism even ‘indifference’ and ‘grey’ is seen as opposition to the absolute. If one is actively grey, then one is a witch.

The paradox of course is that the binary mindset even ‘frames’ an understanding of the conversations and discussions in this blog as adversarial and oppositional. The advocacy of humanizing the workplace in safety is not a non-ideology of binary but rather an advocacy of safety as a human activity. (There are countless proactive messages and actions available on this blog that are not established by oppositionalism).

The binary mindset unfortunately doesn’t consider the idea of dangerous by-products and trade-offs in safety as a cause for reconsideration of binary assumptions. The blurring of the binary message is considered anathema to binary logic. The message of this blog and the notion of ‘being’ is not framed over and against something else (binary logic) but rather that binary logic dehumanizes the message of safety. Advocating non-black and white is not a call to oppositionalism but rather a call to de-politicize and de-binaryize safety. There is a rainbow of safety beyond just black and white.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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