Wowzers and Crusaders in Risk

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The irony of this story is that the Rural Fire Service volunteers are purposely engaging in harm in order to save lives and property and they are doing it each day in NSW in the current bushfire crisis. This is the nature of hormesis, many things in life require the engagement of harm and risk to save lives……This surely is a perfect illustration of how wowzers and crusaders in legislation and compliance don’t get it.

Wowzers and Crusaders in Risk

In to the fireIt will come as no surprise to some that there are wowsers and crusaders out there who don’t get it. We hear on the news today that a publican at the Catherine Hill Bay Hotel (affectionately known as the Catho Pub), has offered free beers to the Rural Fire Service volunteers as a way of saying thank you for their marvellous efforts in recent days. The problem with this story is that a licensing officer has visited the premises to warn the publican of a non-compliance with the licensing laws (FULL STORY HERE). This surely is a perfect illustration of how wowzers and crusaders in legislation and compliance don’t get it.

The idea of a “wowzer” originated around 1900 and referred to a person who delighted in withdrawing pleasure from others, particularly with regard to alcohol (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wowser). A wowser is a person who delights in the ‘letter of the law’ not ‘the spirit of the law’. Indeed, the wowzer doesn’t actually understand the purpose of the law, the nature of regulation, competing values or trade offs in risk. Yet, it seems so often wowzers gravitate to the might level of safety officer as frustrated police officers.

Now, no one denies the dangers of excessive alcohol, the research is extensive on harm associated with alcohol consumption (Science Daily Paper). The latest research shows that excessive alcohol consumption is a major problem in Australia with more people putting themselves ‘at risk’ than ever before (ALCOHOL RESEARCH FINDINGS). But we all know that for every risk, there another trade off in risk, binary thinking is immature thinking when it comes to understanding risk. The old binary question: ‘how many people do you want to harm today’, is a classic example of fundamentalist, binary, black and white thinking about risk. When one assumes that zero harm is logical language then there is no critique of such binary nonsense questions. This is the kind of black and white thinking that doesn’t understand ‘the spirit of the law’ and gives grateful publican a non-conformance. I tell a similar story of a Workcover crusader who tried to issue a non-conformance for the Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross. When one worships the law as an end in itself, then risk doesn’t make sense. Crusaders in risk then delight in the minutiae of the law as if goals and values do not compete, all rules are absolute.

The irony of this story is that the Rural Fire Service volunteers are purposely engaging in harm in order to save lives and property and they are doing it each day in NSW in the current bushfire crisis. This is the nature of hormesis, many things in life require the engagement of harm and risk to save lives eg. the nature of vaccinations is the injection of a toxin to trigger resistance to disease, fire fighters have to suffer exposure, exhaustion and excessive heat to save lives. Zero harm is illogical nonsense. All engagement with risk involves a trade off and all goals are competing goals, it is only the binary crusaders who think that everything is black and white.

The NSW licensing laws were obviously created to regulate responsibility and accountability with the distribution of alcohol in society. The consumption of alcohol causes harm to the human body and so we seek to regulate that harm. However, at the same time the same fluid is a cultural token of thanks and a higher value when it comes to the current context. During the Canberra bushfires MacDonalds and Coke gave the most amazing generosity to volunteers and thanks, is that the time to jump up and down about sugar and obesity?

I can just imagine what will happen the next time the car from the NSW Liquor and Gaming Service rolls up to the Catho Pub after this one breaks out, the media will have a field day. However, this does raise the issue for people in safety about the extremism that is fostered by absolutes in safety culture. When one sets objectives by perfectionist and absolutist principles in isolation from competing values, goals and the nature of human fallibility you end up with the a dry pub in the middle of a bush fire.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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