Reality vs Theory, The Binary Divide
Not a week goes by without someone telling me to get out of the ‘classroom’ and get some safety reality. The assumption is that because I have a title before my name that I am somehow stuck in some academic vortex. Unfortunately, Safety in general seems to pitch the reality/theory binary divide against each other as if there is no third way or in-between. This is the nature of binary oppositionalism (https://safetyrisk.net/binary-opposites-and-safety-goal-strategy/, https://safetyrisk.net/a-philosophy-of-safety/). Indeed, some people ‘hide’ behind this divide as a defense mechanism for not embracing the discomfort of a trans-disciplinary view on risk.
There is no binary divide between theory and practice!
The idea that theory is somehow secondary to reality is a nonsense and visa versa. Let’s look at the evidence. The reality of World War 1 (20 million dead) was created by a theory (Nationalism), World War 2 and the Holocaust (60 million dead) (Nazism), Russian and Chinese Revolutions (40 million dead) (Communism) Spanish Inquisition (10 million dead) (Imperialism), the list is endless. One can talk about gravity as reality as much as one likes but it wasn’t gravity that was the problem for the make-do pilots in 9/11, it was theory (Fundamentalism).
An understanding of the nature of ideologies (theories) should stop this silly divide between theory and practice. Indeed, the idea that reality has precedence over theory is its own theory (Naïve Realism https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Na%C3%AFve_realism). What Safety needs to do is not have less theory but a better understanding of how theory drives practice. What Argyris and Schon called ‘theory-in-use’.
Hiding behind a binary divide simply keeps making safety ‘dumb’. There has to be more to safety than checklist thinking. This is probably why people cannot see the theory of perfectionism that sits at the foundation of the zero discourse. It is probably why people cannot see the moral trajectories behind a host of snake oil theories floating about in the safety semiosphere. If safety needs to be done ‘differently’, then its not likely this will happen without a fair dose of sophisticated thinking, imagination, creativity and risk. The prioritization of reality over and above theory continues to keep Safety dumb.
One of the defense mechanisms dished out by dumb down Safety hides behind this distinction made between the ‘frontline’ and ‘backline’. Somehow, the risk associated with steelfixing is different than the risk associated with driving taxis on Friday and Saturday night? Somehow, working on an excavator is a greater risk than working in Z ward in a prison? Somehow risk is different on a conveyor belt than in a detention centre? Somehow bullying and mental health risk is different than a broken arm, and less severe? Somehow ceramic tiling is less risky than driving a bus? Where do people make up such binary stuff?
So, let’s not hide behind this imaginary divide, it should not be ‘either/or’ but ‘both/and’.