Why Myths in Safety Work
Update: See our expanding series on Safety Myths HERE
As I look back across the 1000 blogs I have written there are many common themes, in a way indicating common concerns of an industry that is most confused and lost. One of the common themes throughout concerns the power of mythology.
Mythology is not about fairy tales or fables. Myths indicate something that is not true but is symbolically true that is, a myth is made real by its symbolic power. The symbol empowers the myth (narrative) and makes it true for ‘the believer’.
All myth and symbol demand an act of faith. The myth of zero is a classic example.
Underestimating the power of symbols is something Safety does very well. We ignore symbolism to our own peril (https://safetyrisk.net/symbols-matter/ ).
Symbols empower narratives that are not true (myths) but make them true because they are anchored in symbols that are believed to be true, when they are not. Once a narrative takes on symbolic power it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not, it is believed to be true. This is how all dis-information and propaganda works.
Indeed, the reason why disinformation and propaganda is so effective is because it panders to common myths and beliefs that people want to be true, particularly when such myths appeal to simplistic theories and black and white propositions. We see this in anti-vaxxer and climate change mythology.
At the heart of disinformation embedded in mythology is a lack of critical thinking (https://safetyrisk.net/critical-theory-critical-thinking-and-safety/ ). This also explains why Safety is so easily seduced by myths. Then add ritualization to myth and symbol and bingo we now get great conviction that a risk matrix, iCam, SWMS or risk assessment is organized as true. There is no curriculum in the world of safety that even slightly tackles the need for critical theory. A sure recipe for falling for myths.
Without a framework to: critique myths, symbols, hidden assumptions, power, ethical foundations, social politics, hidden agenda, false consciousness, manipulated data, weighted sources and manipulated evidence one is indeed set up to fall for mythological power more so, when the myth is authenticated with emphatic power. Of course, when the safety world is framed through the myth of compliance engaging in such thinking is anathema to the foundations of safety.
We often find when trust has been lost in authority that trust simply shifts to others with hidden power that is unquestioned. A great example is the myth of the ANZAC (https://safetyrisk.net/standing-on-the-myths-of-safety/ ).
When false narratives like ‘zero works’, ‘safety saves’ or ‘safety is a choice you make’ are put out into the safety world such myths reward those who accept the narrative even though there is no evidence for such a claim to truth. Then the more a myth is accepted, repeated, ritualised and symbolized, the more it is anchored to political truth so that any rejection of it becomes a religious shibboleth for belonging. This is how safety associations and the Regulator work.
In this way those that criticize a myth must be demonised, any such critique is deemed ‘toxic’ and ‘false’, when the opposite is the case. Indeed, it is often the critique that reveals an even greater care for risk and safety, knowing that the delusional myth offers no hope. Once one enters into the cycle of belief about a myth (eg. zero) and made political, it is nearly impossible to escape. Such is the power of the fundamentalist religious discourse that empowers zero (https://safetyrisk.net/the-spirit-of-zero/ ).
So, if you want to understand why myths work you could start with the collection of blogs below or perhaps read this:
Blogs on Safety Myths