Republished by request and now with accompanying video (at end of article). This article was referenced in the must read new book: Risky Conversations, The Law, Social Psychology and Risk (follow that link for a really cool video on the myths of safety paperwork)
Quote from the article: The denial of the zero goal is not an assertion that I welcomes injuries. I do not accept accidents but don’t talk in the nonsense of zero. Yet, those who commit to zero in binary opposition thinking, then have to carry on with the most absurd semantic gymnastics and redefinition to try and make reality fit their discourse.
Binary Opposites and Safety Goal Strategy
I don’t understand why we have to accept that ‘all accidents are preventable’ when we know they are not. Denying such a statement doesn’t mean the only other choice is fatalism. Why should we think in such binary opposite terms when we don’t in other walks of life. Why is the safety community so constrained by thinking in binary opposition? Before I continue the discussion let’s have a look at binary opposition and what it means. Wikipedia defines binary opposition as:
… the system by which, in language and thought, two theoretical opposites are strictly defined and set off against one another. It is the contrast between two mutually exclusive terms, such as on and off, up and down, left and right. Binary opposition is an important concept of structuralism, which sees such distinctions as fundamental to all language and thought. In structuralism, a binary opposition is seen as a fundamental organizer of human philosophy, culture, and language.
So binary opposition says that if you deny an assertion, you must affirm its opposite. Binary thinking proposes that if one doesn’t believe in god, then you must believe in the devil. Binary thinking proposes that, if you don’t support ‘the war on terror’, you are a terrorist. Binary opposition thinking proposes that if you don’t support gay marriage, you must be homophobic. Binary opposition thinking proposes that if you don’t support the carbon tax you must be an environmental vandal.
I am quite happy to not accept the assertion that all ‘accidents are preventable’ and this does not make me fatalistic. Indeed, I think my approach is both more honest with language and discourse and much more motivational. If binary opposition thinking is to be applied consistently then if one believes ‘all accidents are preventable’ then one must believe that all risk can be controlled. If this is the case, then one must not believe in uncertainty and deny the very meaning of the word ‘risk’. This would make people who assert such conclusions as ‘safety fundamentalists’. Consistency in binary opposition cannot be selective.
So, if we accept that there is no such thing as ‘zero risk’ then we should not spin the meaning of words with assertions such as ‘all accidents are preventable’. The two statements are in contradiction, you can’t have it both ways if one is to maintain consistency in binary opposition thinking.
Of course, there are many practical and far more inspirational alternatives to the nonsense statement: ‘all accidents are preventable’. Avoidance goals are not only not positive but are not inspirational. Performance goals are much more positive and successful. I think we should be talking much more in cultural discourse about ‘keeping people safe’ than ‘preventing harm’. Why does the safety community think that such negative discourse is so inspirational?
Again, we need not think or talk in binary opposites. I do not ‘plan’ for accidents just because I deny the statement ‘all accidents are preventable’. Our goal formation and thinking should be far more sophisticated than this binary nonsense. The denial of the zero goal is not an assertion that I welcomes injuries. I do not accept accidents but don’t talk in the nonsense of zero. Yet, those who commit to zero in binary opposition thinking, then have to carry on with the most absurd semantic gymnastics and redefinition to try and make reality fit their discourse.
We need to be far more intelligent in the way we influence culture than what is offered by the nonsense of binary opposition. A story from Galilee might be helpful.
When I started the Galilee School for high-risk young people in 1996 I accepted many young people who had very sad and dysfunctional lives. Apart from 6 heroin addicts, 10 homeless young people, 4 violent predators, 5 habitual criminals, I accepted the enrolment of two 14 year old boys who has sexually assaulted a dog and killed it. The culture and ethos of the school was critical for its success, so I worked hard to influence language and discourse. The other kids persecuted these two boys by not addressing them by name but rather by calling them ‘dog fuckers’. Now, while the statement was true it was not helpful for the culture and goals of the school. So, I insisted that such language was not acceptable; we did not need to regress to the past or label others just so we could make ourselves look good. I worked hard to eliminate such language in the school and did so by reframing everything in positive performance goals. Then, the kids tried to tag me with the accusation that I therefore accepted the behaviour committed by the two boys. So, here I was teaching young people in a school to not think in binary opposition as a critical pathway to establishing a healthy school culture. As long as the school thought in fundamentalist black and white, no one would be helped or break free from many years of victimisation and abuse. The success of the school speaks for what was achieved by not allowing binary opposition language to dominate the culture.
Some safety experts talk about the importance of a Just Culture and yes, such a focus on reporting is positive. However, we should be thinking much more about how this binary opposition thinking in safety drives a Deception Culture. Such a culture is more insidious and destructive because it masks itself as the ‘angel of light’ in the midst of the ‘evil of harm’.