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Safety Doesn’t Need Military Language

One of my favourite books on learning is by Donald N. Michael ‘Learning to Plan and Planning to Learn’. Michaels is one of the great education philosophers up there with the likes of Parker J. Palmer, Buber, Ellul, Claxton, Robinson, Maclaren, Illich and Friere. Michaels is the best in articulating how boundaries are critical for learning, he states:

‘In the Western construction of reality war-time language provides pervasive metaphors for describing peace-time activities and goals: ‘target’ audience, ‘victorious’ political ‘allies’. ‘defeat’ or ‘shoot down’ the opponent’s proposal. ‘Attack’ and ‘destroy’ the causes of the problem, ‘capture’ a share of the market. (Note that sport, the other popular source of metaphors for describing civil society, also uses many war metaphors.) These metaphors explicitly and (and perhaps more importantly) tacitly emphasize we/they, before/after, winner/loser, beginning/ending – fixed boundaries in time space and relationship. Such metaphors, used deliberately or thoughtlessly, reinforce the persistence of inappropriately discriminated boundaries that are maintained by feedback norms hopelessly inadequate for a world of learning and planning. Learning requires metaphors that are compatible with its purposes and experiences in a fluid, amorphous world’.

As we approach ANZAC Day let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that military language is helpful (or attractive) for learning in the safety community.

Discovering which metaphors serve learning is itself a learning task for the safety community as it continually gets caught up in the logic of binary opposition.

Metaphors and semiotics (symbols and text) are boundary discriminators. They are a technique to designate boundaries and help learning to flow across them. The more we limit boundaries, the greater we limit learning. Restricted boundaries create deep social psychological resistances to learning as we can only learn within social boundaries. For example, where do the notions of vulnerability, listening, conversation, understanding, empathy, helping, collaboration and trust fit in a military bounded context? Surely military metaphors set boundaries that constrain these humanizing values.

Weick (The Social Psychology of Organizing, 1979, p. 50) states: states: ‘Whatever its origin, the military metaphor is a bad choice when used alone because it forces people to entertain a very limited set of solutions to solve any problem and a very limited set of ways to organize themselves’. Further: ‘They solve problems by discharging people (honourably or otherwise), tightening controls, introducing discipline, sending for reinforcements, or clarifying responsibilities’. Weick, like Michaels, knows that when we set limiting boundaries in worldview that we close the imagination and learning.

So, let’s not hold up the military as some bastion of ethical purity or it’s models as effective leadership. When you can’t look after your own even with extensive funding then it tells you that something isn’t working..

However, to be attracted to the military model of thinking in safety seems odd when safety is about saving lives not taking them. It seems strange to be attracted to metaphors of harm in a quest to eliminate harm? The idea of ‘defense’ and ‘attack’ simply doesn’t make sense for safety thinking, nor does is idea that military semiotics is helpful for learning in safety.

Take this example: Warriors 4 Safety? If we need military metaphors in safety then who is safety at war with?  People who don’t comply? Wrongdoers? People who ‘chose’ not to be safe? This blog is not an ‘attack’ on anyone’s person service record but a questioning of why safety needs military metaphors to think about ‘saving’ people? We don’t need safety to be a ‘Lean, Green Safety Machine’ (http://www.safetydifferently.com/lean-green-safety-machine-part-3/) nor should we talk in safety about ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ skills again, such language is unhelpful. People skills are not ‘soft’ skills but ‘human’ skills and it looks at present by news reports that the military could do with more of these skills.




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