The Cult of Opinion in Risk and Safety
Andrew Keen (2007, The Cult of the Amateur) describes the noise, ‘digital narcissism’ and the cacophony of social media as deafening the perception of people towards the voices of informed experts and professionals. People are so busy broadcasting themselves on social networks that ‘they no longer consume the creative work of professional musicians, novelists or filmmakers’ says Keen. With little sense for critical thinking, there is now very little gatekeeping to filter research and evidence from ‘opinion’, everything is just absorbed or ignored. The result is a lack of ability to discern risk and safety. Data is confused for knowledge and value is determined by utility. Keen calls this growing trend the ‘YouTubification’ of thinking. All is good, criticism is negativity and complexity is ‘too hard’.
Now that everything is ‘opinion’, there is little critical ability to determine what is ethical or safe. Keen describes the inability to think critically as an ethical dilemma. The idea that everything is opinion now confuses and devalues researched-based work (evidence-based) as if opinion and fact are one and the same. This is evident with the confusion of asylum seekers/refugees with ‘cue jumpers’ (http://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/asylum-seekers-and-refugees), racism is confused with political incorrectness (http://www.news.com.au/sport/afl/adam-goodes-reveals-racism-still-an-issue-in-afl/story-fndv8ujy-1226401729864; http://www.racismnoway.com.au/about-racism/cyber-racism/index.html; http://www.humanrights.gov.au/news/media-releases/cyber-racists-strike-again-greg-inglis-targeted-social-media-slurs) and, global warming is confused as some opinionated concoction of scientists (http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/11/26/1101219743320.html).
The wave of the ‘crowd’ now floods social media where academic knowledge is denigrated in light of ‘experience’, where insult is confused for critique. It seems that it is only when people and relationships are injured that the risks of social media are felt and understood. The only qualification one now needs to enter this cacophony is an iphone.
A prime example of risk and safety blindness in social media is evidenced in the avalanche in popularity of ‘selfies’ (http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/jul/14/how-selfies-became-a-global-phenomenon) and ‘sexting’ (http://www.theage.com.au/national/inquiry-call-for-new-sexting-law-20130529-2nc4k.html).
These two activities (selfies and sexting) should be of great concern to people interested in risk and safety. The subsequent flood of stalking, bullying and cyber bullying that follows selfies and sexting is driving an increase in psychological injury eg. anxiety, depression and suicide (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/gender-and-schooling/200912/sexting-and-suicide; http://au.news.yahoo.com/queensland/a/-/latest/5377478/warning-after-teen-sexting-suicide/;http://www.webpronews.com/sexting-linked-to-depression-suicide-2011-11).
The cult of opinion leads to simplistic and populist notions in risk and safety such as belief in the effectiveness of zero tolerance. This has now lead to calls that children caught for sexting should receive an incarceration (http://www.news.com.au/technology/states-lead-the-way-in-reviewing-sexting-punishments/story-e6frfro0-1226122171777). The idea that incarceration motivates reform and ownership has no research foundation (http://www.pansw.org.au/sites/default/files/public/Sentencing%20_Effects_on_Crime_Rates_ExecSummary.pdf; see also O’Toole, S., (2012) Corrections in Australia). Yet the populism of zero tolerance remains in social media, and in safety.
So, has the social media ‘YouTubification’ of thinking affected Work Health and Safety? What priority does the risk and safety industry put on critical thinking in leadership? Does the compliance mentality and zero tolerance mindset, popular in the risk and safety industry, encourage a ‘dumb down’ approach to risk? Do we need evidence for safety policy or is the regulatory mandate sufficient to ride over other everything? Does volume of opinion determine ethical precedence? Are we training, indoctrinating and shaping safety people to just tick boxes, shuffle checklists, police regulations or to think? If we pursue the holy value of risk aversion, how will we ever cultivate learning?