What’s in a Symbol? No Big Deal eh Safety?
We learned recently in the trial of Ben Roberts-Smith that a photo of him wearing the ‘crusaders symbol’ was doctored by the Department of Defence in 2011. Ben Roberts-Smith was a corporal in the SAS at the time and has been awarded the Victoria Cross. Mr Roberts-Smith is currently in court being investigated for war crimes. This court case and the Brereton Inquiry into the culture of the Defence Force has been an ongoing focus of media attention for some time.
It is not the cause of interest of this blog in either these legal proceedings or the Brereton Inquiry but rather the power of a symbols and icons. Symbols and icons are NOT neutral or objective and form the foundation of any study of culture. Except of course unless you are in the safety industry where culture is defined as behaviours. You will find no definition of culture in the safety industry or the AIHS BoK on culture that makes any connection between semiotics and culture.
Obviously, the Department of Defense know the power of symbols. Just do a little reading of the following:
- Jobson, C., (2009) Looking Forward Looking Back. Customs and Traditions of The Australian Army. Big Sky Publishing. Wavell Heights QLD.
- Abdusnnouga, G., and Machin, D., (2013) The Language of War Monuments. Bloomsbury, London.
- Ricoeur, P., (1967) The Symbolism of Evil. Beacon Press. Boston. (https://s3.amazonaws.com/arena-attachments/515375/6e74a96b2e072e8fc7bc1f247f80cfa3.pdf)
When you enter the military, you enter the world of semiotics (https://collections.nlm.nih.gov/ext/dw/1308032R/PDF/1308032R.pdf) and in the military, every symbol has significance. In response to the doctoring of the crusader symbol Australia Defence Association executive director Neil James said displaying the symbol was “wrong morally” and “counterproductive”. James said: “You’re fighting people motivated by Islamist extremism, and you’re in effect kicking an own goal by providing them with propaganda. That’s exceptionally dumb to do in a counter-insurgency war.” A spokesperson for Defence said it “does not condone or permit the use, display or adoption of symbols, emblems and iconography that are at odds with Defence values”. In 2018, then-Chief of Army General Angus Campbell issued a directive to commanders that they should stamp out all instances of “death symbology and iconography”.
Make no mistake, the military are strategic about symbols. They know what to wear, when NOT to wear, and how to display symbols. Not so Safety.
The crusader symbol dates back to the 11th and 12th centuries when the Crusaders captured parts of the Middle East from Muslim control. Many Muslims find the cross to be offensive, particularly when displayed by western soldiers in their country. More recently crusader symbology has also become a weapon of the Extreme Far Right
Cultural semiotics are not determined by what you may want them to be. Symbols are NOT neutral and are given meaning by cultures throughout History. Just do a little read of the following and see just how much symbols are culturally determined:
- Martin, C., (2020) The Social Semiotics of Tattoos, Skin and Self. Bloomsbury. London.
- Pelkey, J., (2018) The Semiotics of X. Bloomsbury. London.
- Yelle, R., (2013) The Semiotics of Religion, Signs of the Sacred in History. Bloomsbury. London.
- Frutiger, A., (1989) Signs and Symbols, Their Design and Meaning. Von Nostrand Reinhold. New York.
- Jung, C. G., (1964) Man and His Symbols. Anchor Books. New York. (https://antilogicalism.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/man-and-his-symbols.pdf )
In the end, it doesn’t pay to hide behind ignorance as Safety so enjoys.
Oh yes, your honour, it’s just a red cross and a shield, make of it what you wish. Sorry Safety, legal professionals understand the nature of semiotics too.
In the end, the symbols you chose albeit accidentally and ignorantly, still bear a common meaning determined by cultural semiotics. Unfortunately, Ben Roberts-Smith will be judged rightly or wrongly by choosing to wear such a symbol as the crusaders cross on a shield. Similarly Safety is judged by its ignorance as it ignores the medium of the message (https://safetyrisk.net/the-medium-is-the-message/) and most often conveys the opposite of what it intends (https://safetyrisk.net/competition-winner-crazy-safety-campaigns/ ).
Semiotics are THE most powerful element of culture as they work invisibly in the Collective Unconscious. How clever for Safety to define culture so that this critical element of culture is excluded.
It was 7 years ago that Rob Sams wrote his powerful blog ‘Are you a Safety Crusader or a Safety Leader?’. Choosing the symbol-language of ‘crusading’ and associating it with the safety draws together the brutalism-heroics portrayed by Roberts-Smith and the common brutalism of zero. What a strange industry that then tries to adopt some semblance of caring about mental health whilst at the same time maintaining a regime of safety semiotics that communicates the opposite. The sexism, misogyny, patriarchy, aggression, perfectionism and violence in safety images alone is enough to let you know, there’s no caring for mental health to be found here.
So, before you launch out and just chose whatever symbol you like, why not study the basics of semiotics (https://cllr.com.au/product/semiotics-and-the-social-psychology-of-risk-unit-3-overseas-online-elearning/) and include some critical thinking in your messaging.