Is Safety A Virtue Signal?
I was in a bookshop the other day and saw this book The Babylon Bee Guide to Wokeness. What a crazy society and age we live in where caring for others, helping in the community and compassion for the less fortunate has become ‘woke’. The label and brand of ‘woke’ has now become a meaningless slur to throw at others one doesn’t like, especially those with a social conscience. What this language disguises/masks is often an adoration of individualism, selfishness and greed in the name of good.
The concept of being ‘awoken’ and ‘wake up’ has been in circulation for a while and is used most by conspiracy theorists and ‘fake news’ groups. The rise of social media and the affirmation of the amateur (Keen, (2007) The Cult of the Amateur) has led to extraordinary levels of disinformation.
If ever there was a time that required wisdom, critical thinking and discernment, especially in relation to risk (https://www.humandymensions.com/product/real-risk/ ), it is now. Some even call our times ‘the age of lies’.
In this time, even critical thinking is branded as being ‘woke’ or ‘left’. There are several texts that outline the problem:
- Hedges, C., (2009) Empire of Illusion, The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Nation Books. New York.
- Jackson, B., and Jamieson, K., (2007) un.Spun. finding facts in a world of (disinformation). Random House. New York.
- Nichols, T., (2017) The Death of Expertise, The Campaign against stablished Knowledge and Why it Matters. Oxford. London.
- Kakutani, M., (2018) The Death of Truth. William Collins. London.
- Osborn, P., (2021) The Assault on Truth. Simon and Schuster. New York.
What has this got to do with safety?
Well, the industry of safety that ‘cares’ about the wellbeing of others, that seeks to ‘help’ others be safe and situates safety as foundational to work, could be construed as being ‘woke’ or as a means of ‘virtue signalling’, depending on social context. It is certainly worth discussion in safety circles.
The idea of denouncing conversation about virtues as self-righteous is also a tool used by the some groups who would associate ‘care ethics’ as being ‘woke’. (Unfortunately, the AIHS BoK Chapter on Ethics makes no mention of Care Ethics, one of the most important schools of ethics that Safety should know about. How interesting that when Safety choses to talk about Ethics it seeks to make no mention of Care Ethics. How telling. How professional.)
This doesn’t mean that Safety doesn’t care but rather that it prefers to ‘frame’ its worldview by duty and compliance not by care, learning and helping. Unfortunately, the primacy for safety is on certainty and control not on risk and learning. It could quite easily be more balanced if it had any interest in Transdisciplinarity.
The idea of ‘virtue signalling’ was popularized by James Bartholomew (https://www.theguardian.com/media/2020/oct/30/virtue-signalling-the-culture-war-phrase-now-in-bbc-guidelines; https://theconversation.com/virtue-signalling-a-slur-meant-to-imply-moral-grandstanding-that-might-not-be-all-bad-145546 ). Despite all this and the allusion to ‘culture wars’, Safety now finds itself in a difficult position. Could the request for a safe workplace be construed as an act of virtue signaling?
Bartholomew named virtue signalling as ‘taking the high moral ground without doing anything’. He declared that ‘virtue signallers’ enjoyed the privilege of feeling better about themselves by doing very little. Like changing your profile picture on Facebook and denouncing a politician. This got me thinking about safety sloganeering and the general character of Safety.
How easy to declare zero as a method, when it is not. How easy to say ‘zero works’ and do nothing about how safety dehumanizes persons. How easy to run a campaign slogan, put out some posters, repeat a mantra and not only do nothing about culture but actually confirm a culture of brutalism in the name of good. On most occasions when I observe the language of ‘zero’ it seems an excuse to do more of the same and then name it as ‘different’. A good example is global zero’s idea of 7 Golden Rules and Guides (https://visionzero.global/guides ). Read them, just more of the same packaged as ‘golden’.
In everyday discourse, the people who accuse others of ‘virtue signalling’ are often not interested in doing real moral and ethical analysis – mostly, all they want is to discredit their opponents politically. To challenge such slurs and argument requires a certain level of intelligence in critical thinking, identifying binary opposition, understanding semiotics (studies in sign-alling) and discernment of political/ethical agenda – skills not learned in safety. How strange this industry that doesn’t consider for a second the importance of what it ‘signs’? How strange this industry that seeks to tell the world that safety (zero) is ‘signed’ by numerics, controls and metrics? How strange this industry that speaks of ethics but never uses the language of ‘care’, ‘helping’ and ‘learning’?
Here are some questions to consider when thinking about safety as a virtue: Is safety a morally superior position to harm? Have others attempted to shame you because you cared about safety? Was it because of a position of righteousness without substance? Was it because the slogan didn’t match reality? These questions would certainly worth debate in safety circles.
I think one of the reasons why people attack others using the language of ‘virtue signalling’ is because it identifies false, cheap and easy actions. It costs nothing to hide behind a slogan. I get it, if safety is cheap and easy whilst declaring self-righteousness, that’s pretty annoying. When all you have to do is regurgitate a system, update a process or fill out a checklist, safety is easy.
How much harder it is to engage with people, give up time, help and orient towards others, listen and learn about others, meet others in their space and put their needs ahead of a meaningless slogan? How much harder is it to delve into the complexities and paradox of risk, uncertainty and people skills? This is where the ‘hard yards’ are made in safety, the easy stuff is policing checklists and spruiking zero. Unfortunately, you won’t find any of the real ‘hard stuff’ in the safety curriculum (https://safetyrisk.net/isnt-it-time-we-reformed-the-whs-curriculum/ ). How strange this industry that disparages the ‘soft skills’ (better named ‘people skills’) and adores the simplicity of hard data that devalues persons. No surprise that Safety calls the hard things soft and the soft things hard. Perhaps a signal of a cheap virtue.