Red flags and the abdication of responsibility

Red flags have always signaled a warning.

In the sixteen hundreds a red flag signaled that an army was preparing for battle. In the nineteenth century it became law to wave a red flag in front of a moving vehicle to warn unsuspecting pedestrians. And in the twenty-first century, toxic work culture is expressed in red flag emojis on Twitter.

All these warnings have something in common. They are all an abdication of responsibility.

Not a warning to exercise caution, but that the thing you are being warned about is going to carry on regardless of any harm it may do to you. The approaching army will attack, and if you are slain it is your fault for being on the battlefield. The car will precede along it’s intended route, and if are run over it is your fault for not getting out of way. The company will continue to be an unhealthy place to work, and if you are harmed it is your fault for continuing to be employed.

Displaying a red flag is the equivalent of walking around with your fist out in front of you and blaming those who get punched in the face for not getting out of your way.

The warning doesn’t say to those being warned, “I will be careful not to cause harm to you”. It doesn’t say, “I recognise that I could cause harm but I am going to change that”. Instead it says “I will carry on regardless, my warning is to tell you to get out of my way”. It says, “I’ve done all I am willing to do to minimise harm to you, I have warned you.”

When the first automobiles trundled the streets of nineteenth century cities they were required by law to have a person walk 60 yards ahead of them waving a red flag. The law has often been referenced as an example of innovation being held back by an incumbent industry, but if we consider that the law was actually meant for heavy traction engines it helps us appreciate how the red flag entered our modern public consciousness. The person waving the red flag told pedestrians to get out of the way. The red flag wasn’t used to tell the driver of the traction engine to navigate around the people. The expectation of the warning was that of, “We’re coming through, and if you don’t move you’ll be crushed”. That expectation of a red flag warning persists.

Today, red flags are still used to warn against entering live firing ranges but the armed forces have found other ways to indicate their battle readiness. Cars no longer need actual red flags because the blame has become implicit - if a pedestrian or cyclist is hit by a car it’s their fault for being in the wrong place. And so red flags have become more metaphorical than literal, although no less real, and those raising the red flags has shifted from those presenting the risk to the wary onlookers. So where does the responsibility lay now?

The red flag that is raised to call out unhealthy working practices and company cultures or toxic behaviours in relationships, is often done so with the best of intentions. It is done by those onlookers to warn others to avoid such situations, knowing almost implicitly that the situation will carry on regardless and so a red flag is the appropriate warning. The red flag has been so effective in removing the responsibility of those causing harm that they no longer bother to raise it themselves. Because you should know by now to get out of the way.

So, if you see something you think others should be warned of, and feel compelled to raise a red flag, pause a moment and think about whether it’s about something you can take responsibility for changing or whether your warning says that you accept it’s going to continue regardless. Perhaps we need another warning, one that alerts us to the risk and commits to reducing or removing it, but in the meantime, if you see a red flag raised take the warning and get out of the way, because whatever it brings will not change course to avoid harming you.