Talking Zero Nonsense to People
I observe with amusement a presentation at the next proposed zero cult conference this: ‘Zero Suicides, simple as that’. What happens when we sanction the talking of such nonsense to people?
The idea of zero anything is offensive to anyone who has experienced harm or suicide. The last thing you want to hear when you have experienced an accident or someone has suicided, is language that says ‘this was preventable’, ‘zero is possible’ or ‘this was a choice’. What absolute and utter simplistic nonsense. This is the kind of nonsense talk that Safety loves because it frames its identity by numerics. This is the kind of simplistic language that denies fallibility and all the complexity of living as a person in a random world. The last thing Safety should be talking about is numbers (https://safetyrisk.net/its-always-a-number/).
Anyone who has any experience at all in working in the area of suicide knows the deep hurt and offence projected by simplistic language. Suicide is so complex, stigmatized and ‘wicked’ that any language of ‘simple as that’ is deeply offensive. Safety is most noisy when it is at its most dumb and unprofessional.
The language we use is inseparable from its by-products (https://safetyrisk.net/linguistics-and-risk/). It doesn’t matter what your good motive is, such naïve language as ‘zero suicides, simple as that’, is offensive and unethical.
Researchers know that many suicides are never so named, not every suicide leaves a note of explanation (https://safetyrisk.net/why-people-dont-speak-up-and-suicide/ ; https://safetyrisk.net/our-social-being-and-why-it-matters-in-mental-health-and-suicide/ ). Having worked in the industry that copes the most with suicide and having researched extensively in suicideology, that last thing that makes sense is silly talk of ‘zero suicide, simple as that’. This is why the ‘Dumb Ways to Die’ campaign of Melbourne Metro is also deeply offensive (https://safetyrisk.net/dumb-ways-to-die-and-a-strange-sense-of-success/ ). Suicide, by whatever means, is not a dumb way to die. Such language only further deepens the stigma of the issue.
When I was working in a non-government agency a few years back we were supporting two families whose 14 year old children had developed a pact and jumped in front of a train. (If this story triggers any concerns or stress please contact Lifeline https://www.lifeline.org.au/). I can tell you, nothing is more distressing than the suicide of a child. The last thing either family needed was simplistic talk, dumb language or crusaders within earshot. I don’t care if you think you have some pure motive, we didn’t want any of that nonsense talk to come near these families. You cannot separate the by-products of nonsense talk from the suffering and pain of those who hear such talk. All counsellors and psychologists in the field of suicide, know what such talk does, it makes everything worse.
Of course, the ideology of zero is behind much of this simplistic binary, black and white nonsense (https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/06/vision-zero-suicide-sweden/394994/). And it doesn’t seem to matter to the ideologues that it doesn’t work (https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/06/why-suicide-rates-among-millennials-are-rising/612943/). What matters most is the linguistics of slogans (https://safetyrisk.net/the-seduction-of-slogans-in-safety/) as if a slogan fixes something. It does the opposite. Sloganeering mostly demonstrates the ignorance of the slogan. The key to sloganeering is a lack of substance.
The language of prevention is NOT the language of zero. Zero ideology has no place in the risk and safety world. As a start, perhaps do some research before you start talking nonsense to people about suicide:
The language of ‘zero suicide, as simple as that’ or ‘zero harm’ is moral language that casts judgment on the act and as anyone knows in the field, the last thing one speaks to anyone is ideological moral judgment. Similarly, anyone who has lost a loved one in a workplace accident doesn’t need the moralisms of Safety standing beside spruiking ‘zero harm’ and its associated slogans. The only language families need in the presence of suicide, is that of ‘helping’ and ‘care’. BTW, this is not the language Safety speaks. You will find nothing in the AIHS BoK or safety curriculum on the professional practice of helping. The practice of helping/care is foundational to the nature of the professions (https://safetyrisk.net/not-a-professions-bootlace/ ; https://safetyrisk.net/safety-as-a-helping-profession/ ). Zero ideology and language has no place in the language of a professional.
Of course, the mindset that talks about ‘targets’ and ‘goals’ has no idea of the by-products of such talk. It thinks language is some kind of neutral code that doesn’t contain political and ethical values. This is all documented splendidly by Postman, in Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk.
But who is going to read such researchers without a Transdisciplinary approach (https://safetyrisk.net/transdisciplinary-thinking-in-risk-and-safety/ ) to learning? As long as the zero cult keeps to its own narrow ideology, we will still get such ‘Crazy Stupid Talk’ as ‘zero suicide, simple as that’. If Safety continues speaking nonsense to people it can never be entitled to the notion of ‘professional’.
Rob Long says
Charles, in the last 20 years I have never had one zero cult acolyte ever respond to an invitation to debate said ideology. Everyone know that it is not defendable, it denies all reality of human fallibility, psychology of goals, meaning in linguistics and sense in safety. It persists primarily because of ignorance and immaturity in the safety sector e.g there is no discussion of zero in the AIHS BoK or safety curriculum and my survey shows that over 90% of the sector believe it is dishonest, unethical and corrupt. Of course, its own logic is premised on a fallacy that safety can be defined by a number or the absence of something not present.
Please if you know anyone who would like to debate the ideology please send me their details. Yet, all associations such as the AIHS globally are signed up to this nonsense. It is not worth the journey because the destination can only ever be brutalism.
Brian Edwin Darlington says
Great Blog Rob, so true. Fits the message in the new book.
Rob Long says
Brian, those who believe in zero would never buy the book nor want to hear a story of a different journey that abandons zero and achieves great things in tackling risk without the brutalism of zero.
Charles Tortise says
Zero anything indicates a concern for a perfect state, and who wouldn’t want that? The question I have been asked in response to questioning why zero is often framed as “So how many RTA/Deaths/Serious Injuries/whatever is acceptable?” But, what is difficult for them to answer in reply is “So, for the sake of argument, assume we achieve all you want and we get to zero. What then? Are we then no longer capable or desiring of improvement?” Generally there is no answer because they then admit the accomplishment of zero is an impossibility but it is worth the journey as in just one accident prevented is worth the effort. Which starts another exploration about how can an accident be preventable.