The Illusion Of Opposites
A number of recent postings have explained that the words we use can be very powerful in shaping our thoughts and perceptions e.g. They’re only words aren’t they?. This lead me to wonder about some of the words and language that may have shaped my perceptions. I considered in particular how I was taught about opposites at school. If you asked me to describe the opposite of ‘hot’ I would have said ‘cold’. Likewise with ‘rich and poor’, ‘light and dark’, ‘tall and short’ etc. I would also have described them all as being very real but totally opposite things.
As I considered these word-pairs and what they meant to me, I realised that they all have at least two things in common.
- They are not two opposites, but rather a description of different states of one thing. Take the opposites of light and dark. There is only light – more of it, less of it, or the absence of it. We can’t add a substance called ‘dark’ to tone down the light. Similarly with regards to temperature, only heat energy exists. You can keep adding heat energy and continue getting hotter and hotter, or take heat away to get cooler. In essence it is a continuum beginning with the absence of heat at the one end, and ever-increasing levels of heat towards the other.
- Context is everything. The degree to which light or heat exists depends on the context. The amount of heat present may be hot enough to toast bread, but too cold to melt steel.
But what has this to do with safety?
I came to realise that over many years, these words have conditioned me to think in terms of direct opposites, with no state in-between. I suspect I am not alone in this. That is why it is so easy for us to believe that the opposite to ‘safe’ is ‘unsafe’. The real danger of this is that we develop binary thinking in which it is easy to believe that safety is a state to be achieved, ‘unsafe’ as a state to be avoided, and there is nothing in-between; only the one state or the other.
Taking the analogy between safety and heat energy further:
- The absence of any heat is absolute zero. This state of zero degrees kelvin is theoretically known but does not have any practical relevance to us in our daily lives. Similarly, a state where risk does not exist has no practical relevance in our daily lives, because risk is everywhere.
- With regards to temperature, there is a happy medium somewhere between the temperature extremes for us to comfortably live. Similarly with safety; risk is always present, however we should look for a level of risk between the extremes that achieves a happy medium. What constitutes a happy medium will depend on context. The level of risk someone may accept for driving may be different to the level of risk they would accept when flying or scuba-diving. The factors that determine an acceptable level of risk will also vary between individuals based on individual backgrounds, experiences, training etc.
What would our thinking look like if we came to accept that just like heat or light, that safety is one long continuum? A continuum with the absence of risk on the one end and a never-ending increase of risk towards the other end? A continuum with a level of acceptable risk somewhere in-between the extremes?
This would have many benefits, perhaps the greatest one being an acceptance of the reality that a certain level of risk is both expected and acceptable. Then we can embrace risk along with all the benefits that it entails (https://safetyrisk.net/embracing-risk/ and https://safetyrisk.net/want-to-make-things-safer-take-more-risks/).