Rhetoric and Reality in Safety

Rhetoric and Reality in Safety

imageOnce upon a time the word ‘rhetoric’ was equated with philosophy and the art of persuasion. It has now degenerated into meaning little more than eloquence with words or linguistic style. It has lost its meaning of being about genuine thinking and purpose. More so, these days rhetoric often refers to the development of ‘spin’ and ‘word smithing’ to support social-political discourse.

My brother use to say that some people are: ‘good at saying nothing really well’ in reference to homiletics and presenting and, I think he’s right. Some are good at entertaining but really offer no ethical meaning in what is presented either in print or speech. The emergence of social media has opened up a platform for many to practice this new meaning of ‘rhetoric’.

A few years back a friend raved on to me about this person called Jordan Peterson and that I should read his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. So, I bought the book and read it, as painstakingly as I could. I rarely throw away books, if I don’t find a book helpful I usually give it to the Lifeline Bookfair. In this case, I put the book in the bin, I didn’t want anyone else to waste their time on a book that provides no ‘maps of meaning’. Stringing together bits of pop psych and aesthetic bits and pieces offers little meaning, especially when one would expect an ‘ethic of meaning’ and hope in discourse. Peterson’s book captured the new meaning of ‘rhetoric’.

Unfortunately, in political life and the media, we now expect that language has no meaning. Stringing together words and grammar in an appeal to sectarian belief seems more of what politics has become, it certainly is not about genuine belief. As people begin to despair about mainline politics, they now look to the fringes for meaning and purpose. But is Safety any better?

This week we discovered that Boeing has been engaging in ‘safety rhetoric’ (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/21/business/boeing-safety-features-charge.html) regarding the Standard 737 Max plane. After two airline crashes we find that safety features on their planes were only sold as ‘extras’!

The key to understanding rhetoric is through discernment and matching the spruiking of language to reality. Just visit the Boeing website and have a look at all its rhetoric about safety (https://www.boeing.com/company/about-bca/aviation-safety.page). Now match the rhetoric to reality???

Unfortunately, this kind of discourse is common with tier one organisations. You can string together all the ’zero harm’, ‘safety first’, ‘safety is a choice you make’, ‘beyond zero’, ‘all accidents are preventable’ rhetoric you want, but it can never match the reality of fallibility (https://www.humandymensions.com/product/fallibility-risk-living-uncertainty/).

It this context rhetoric just becomes spin and propaganda for hidden agenda and has no connection to meaning. This is why the industry needs an ethic of safety and why the maintenance of zero is such a dangerous idea (https://vimeo.com/230093823).

Zero, The Maintenance of a Danagerous Idea from Human Dymensions on Vimeo.

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.

7 Replies to “Rhetoric and Reality in Safety”

  1. It is somewhat naïve of me to think the ALP will do anything radical, especially considering its campaign is merely to change the rules when the head needs cutting off the snake.

    The smokescreen of harmonisation and national uniformity has merely absolved the standard of duty of care on behalf of corporate conglomerates, which was the intent of the Employers’ Federation via extensive lobbying from Garry Brack back in the late 1990s.

    This culminated in changing the structure and dissolution of the NOHSC in January 2006, when the Howard government obtained control in the senate.

    The DEWR under Tony Abbott even appointed Jeremy Ellis AO, a former BHP executive as interim chair of the Australia Safety and Compensation Council to expedite the process.

    Indeed as Noam Chomsky has often remarked….Governments are not moral agents, especially when the mad monk was provided with too much power, which will eventually be revealed by Bronwyn Bishop who has yet to spill the beans.

  2. Unfortunately, most people in Safety are not educated about politics or ethics and it is certainly not a part of any OHS curriculum. The training that does exists is a process of compulsory mid-education that convinces them that safety is about filling out forms and counting injuries. Then it gets branded as ‘professional’ and all critical thinking stops under the rubrik of compliance to the dominant paradigm.

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