Saturday, 16 July 2011

Power and Responsibility

When I was a child, my father had a lot of little sayings. One of them was “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We all know examples of how that works, from Mugabe’s thugs to Abu Ghraib, from Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman” to the shenanigans at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World. Further back in history, there was Hitler and Idi Amin and Watergate. It’s gotten so that we almost expect corruption of some sort in large companies and high places. The more power that’s on offer, the more likely it is that it will go to someone’s head – or simply attract the potentially corrupt (and violent).

My father also had another little saying that was the flip side of the above – “responsibility ennobles, and absolute responsibility ennobles absolutely”. The problem with that in today’s world is that while many seek power, very few seem willing to take responsibility. Whenever the excrement hits the fan, whoever has that power, they are never somehow to blame, at least in their own eyes. Ass-covering has become almost automatic. Many years ago, when the Cave Creek disaster happened, I remember a very apt cartoon, which had various ministers, reps of government departments, etc, etc, all standing around in a circle pointing the finger at the next person in line and chanting in chorus “It’s his fault!” If anyone does take the blame, it’s usually some low-ranked subordinate offered up as a sacrificial lamb, or, in a few rare instances, some figurehead executive falls on their sword – “my department, my responsibility” sort of thing (this seems to be happening for Murdoch executives at the moment). Meanwhile, in the middle ranks, things go on as usual, the ‘culture’ of the place unchanged, or at most simply concealed better.

Most recently, I’ve seen this in action in our police force. Now I’m not slagging off the police in general. I’ve even met some nice ones. But there is a culture, or sub-culture if you like, within the force, of ‘bully boys’. As I’ve said in a previous post, I saw this ‘back in the day’, but had thought it was a thing of the past. Even such things as the Louise Nicholas case, I thought were simply hangovers from that past. But the Arie Smith-Voorkamp case has proved me wrong. Again, I am NOT saying all police are like this. But I do think that those who are, are being protected by their colleagues and superiors. NZ police, like many police forces around the world, tend to have a kind of ‘siege mentality’, where because of constant dealing with criminals, they often come to assume just about everybody who’s not a cop is guilty of something. They come to believe all their actions justified, and see themselves as pretty much ‘alone against the world’, and any criticism of them is ‘pandering to the crims’. They seem to believe if they admit to wrong-doing on the part of one of their own, it will not just tarnish their image, but lessen their ability to ‘catch the bad guys’. Somehow, they believe for that to happen, they must appear perfect. Cue ass-covering, denial of ‘aggro’ in courts and media, refusal to back down, etc, etc. The modern philosophy of refusal to take responsibility only feeds into this.

Let me digress for a minute. My daughter has been surrounded by unconditional love from the moment she was born. My only child, she is the ‘apple of my eye’. She also has strong, close bonds with extended family members, especially her grandmother. But if she when young had ever committed some serious wrong-doing – eg if she had ever shoplifted – I would, firstly, have ripped her a new one, and secondly, hauled her back to the shop by the scruff of her neck and made her return the goods and apologise to the shopkeeper or manager – publicly. Her grandmother would have given her an “I’m-so-disappointed-in-you” talk, and other family members would also have strongly voiced their disapproval. And she knew it too. Did she ever steal anything? Not flaming likely!!! In fact on one occasion when she was about ten or eleven, when a (so-called) friend tried to persuade her to go to a local shop and pinch stuff, she hotly refused, and stomped off home. The other girl went to the shop – and promptly got caught stealing, my daughter smugly informed me the next day.

The point I’m trying to make is that even if there are strong bonds (as police, army units, etc tend to develop), it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to approve, publicly or privately, of all each others’ actions. Nor is necessarily destructive to those bonds if one of the group is ‘hauled across the coals’ for those actions. If you think, well, that’s family, a police force is somewhat different, I suggest you look across the Tasman, to the New South Wales Police. This force was plagued by rampant corruption for decades. It was only through the stubborn efforts of dedicated people both within and outside the force that this was finally exposed and (hopefully, mostly) put an end to. Did this, at the time, damage the image of the force in the eyes of the Australian public? Undoubtedly. Does this same public now has greater confidence that their police are far less likely to be corrupt? I haven’t spoken to any Australians on the subject, but I’d be willing to bet on it.

So maybe I’m just a naïve aspie. But surely, if anyone refuses to take responsibility for their actions, insists they “didn’t do anything wrong”, lies about it, evades the truth, or stubbornly insists on the wrong-doing of others to divert attention away from their own, the more their image is likely to go down in other people’s eyes. If the police would own up, however, to occasionally ‘going over the top’ out of misplaced zealousness or righteous anger, or to a ‘misjudgement’ in how they prosecute a case, yes, a short-term dip in their image will almost certainly happen. But in the long run – after all the media hype died down - that image would surely be enhanced. “Well, hey, they’ve done wrong sometimes, but they’re man enough to own up to it, and try to put things right.” That sort of thing. Further evasion of responsibility etc, though, can only damage their image in the eyes of all the public, not just those with Aspergers.

But I admit, I’m not holding my breath it’s going to happen any time soon. This attitude seems entrenched in the police, and there are likely to be more Aries, not necessarily with Aspergers, but undoubtedly from some vulnerable group or another. I’d be willing to bet on that too.

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