********If you are interested in knowing more about the Social Psychology of Risk then a one-off workshop is available this week in Sydney: http://cllr.com.au/product/an-introduction-to-the-social-psychology-of-risk-unit-1/******
Risk and Safety Starts with Being?
The key to sensemaking is not the question why but the question who. The question why looks for reasons, the question what looks for objects, the question where looks for space and place, the question when looks at time, the question how looks for method but, the question who searches for being. The question who is a question about relationships, identity, being, i-thou, meaning, purpose, ontology, ideology and trajectory. Once we can sort out the who question, all the other questions make more sense.
The test of any ethic or value is its trajectory over time and its effect on humans and communities. One can present a great case for the national well being and end up with a trajectory that exterminates millions of people, we all know the Nazi story. The idea that the Nazis were evil megolamanics and psychopaths, is simply not supported by the evidence. The work of many social psychologists like Milgram, Zimbardo, Meissner, Adorno, Hoffer and Plous show that we are all capable of inflicting suffering on others in the right circumstances for the best of motives.
Whilst its important to ask why things are the way they are it is much more important to ask questions of being, identity, assumption, ideology and purpose. Questions of being always precede questions about actions – what, where, when, why and how. It’s not really asking or knowing why that matters most, although all these questions matter. It is knowing who one is and who one is in relation to others that forms the very foundations of being and subsequently decision making and behaviours.
Perhaps the best illustration of the importance of understanding being is the challenge of Cognitive Dissonance (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance ). The reason why Cognitive Dissonance is so powerful is because it brings to the surface the hidden assumptions in identity and being. The pain and stressors of Cognitive Dissonance bring to the surface the very ethical and ideological conflict that uncover hidden assumptions and unconscious values. This video about the Cognitive Dissonance Cycle might help: https://vimeo.com/202589604
Contrary to simplistic descriptions, Cognitive Dissonance is much more than a sense of discomfort about ideas. Cognitive dissonance is about more than contradiction but is about being in critical ideological and identity stress (pain) with oneself and with one’s in-group (family, church, peers, extended family etc). The reason why Festinger (https://archive.org/details/pdfy-eDNpDzTy_dR1b0iB) studied cults was because of the powerful bond and crisis of breaking bonds in belonging, identity and ideology associated with ‘being’ in cults.
Converting into a cult or leaving a cult is a most painful and sacrificial experience. One doesn’t just enter a cult-ure on the whim of an idea nor give up and convert out of an idea like changing snack foods or making a menu choice. So, it helps to understand the power of the Cognitive Dissonance cycle and the complexity of dynamics that holds people to irrational, arational and non-rational beliefs, even the belief in zero harm. Just look at the following contradiction: Life is random, people are fallible, zero is achievable??? Now at this stage this is just a conflict in ideas but, to give up the associated ideology could result in losing one’s job, falling out of the in-group or worse. So, in comes Cognitive Dissonance to quell the associated pain and so, all kinds of reasons are found to make sense of the contradiction.
Inflicting pain and suffering on others is often done in the name of good eg. ‘you are only being dismissed because you are a safety threat to others’, ‘you chose un-safety and so must go’, ‘safety is our number one priority, so there’s the door’. When such is the case, ideas and principles are often prioritized over people with the aid of binary opposition. With the help of black and white thinking, it is easy to inflict suffering (psychological, social and economic harm) on others in the name of ‘zero harm’. When human error is the problem and mistakes can’t be tolerated, when the workplace is framed in absolutes and perfectionist goals, there will always be ‘collateral damage’ in the name of good. It is simply absurd to suggest that there can be kindness in safety when the goal and language is absolute and intolerant (https://sm.britsafe.org/power-kindness)
When we start with an understanding of being we enter into the foundations of belief and faith that comprise the motivations and drive for what people do. (After all risk is essentially an act of faith for an expected outcome). A perfectionist ideology and discourse must always lead to a trajectory of bullying, victimization and control. A perfectionist ideology in a fallible world with fallible people sets a trajectory for schizophrenia and Cognitive Dissonance. Somehow the injuries, mistakes, errors, statistics, slips, hiccups and harm must be explained away because, it can never go away, it can never be achieved. Yet, the believers must hold to the ideology, despite the evidence. This is because of the fear of fatalism, the binary trap (how many people do you want harmed today?) and the foundational identity in safety as the absence of harm. So set a goal for zero harm then make sure you count all the times you don’t achieve it, that’s makes sense? Not.
Figure 1. Understanding Cognitive Dissonance
Unfortunately, the ‘being’ associated with perfectionist beliefs cannot be sustained. The language of perfectionism and perfectionist goals (https://faculty.fuqua.duke.edu/~tlc10/bio/TLC_articles/2011/Ferguson_Moore_Chartrand_2011.pdf) is founded not just on the desire for absolutes but an implicit belief in infallibility. Setting lower order goals (zero harm and counting) shapes the very way humans interact with each other (see further Moscowitz – The Psychology of Goals), goals are not neutral but embed an ideology (a being) and most people in zero harm readily admit that it is an ideology. Such an ideology can only lead to brutalism founded in the vice of intolerance. There can be no in-between, no grey, safety is absolute against all other competing values. This is the discourse, this is the language.
Of course there is a ‘third way’, and many other ways to understand risk and safety. Juggling the nature of a wicked problem is indeed liberating and opens up new ways and more human ways (and tools) to ‘actualize’ risk. This new way of understanding risk opens up a host of new methods and strategies in tackling risk. The beginning is understanding risk and safety through a social psychological lens.
If you are interested in knowing more about the Social Psychology of Risk then a one-off workshop is available this week in Sydney: http://cllr.com.au/product/an-introduction-to-the-social-psychology-of-risk-unit-1/