Normalising immorality

My last blog post was about the perverse incentives currently circulating in universities which lead good academics to do bad things. I cited studies which indicate academics may lie to get research grants, selectively present data confirming a hypothesis or exaggerate their findings to get published. This was read by one commentator as blaming academics for merely responding to the conditions which are necessary to keep their jobs. And she didn’t care for the appropriation of the Trump analogy either.

OK, time to get right back into the water. My point was that, primarily, it is the structures within which academics work that are to blame. Governments send down their edicts, and universities seek to maximize their opportunities within them. But there must also be some degree of agency which we can all exert in defiance of corrupting structures. I want to state why it is unacceptable for any of us to overlook dishonesty and the undermining of legitimate process, and why we need to act collectively to stop it.

I’m becoming quite a fan of Rowan Williams. For one thing he examines the dangers of tolerating hypocrisy and unethical behaviour. For another, he does not speak well of Donald Trump, so he’s my man. In March 2016 he spoke locally about ethics, morality and empathy. His argument was that when people behave unethically, it does not mean they are devoid of empathy; in fact, the reverse. Those who perpetrate causal cruelty achieve their result precisely because they recognise what they are doing, and understand the extent of their victims’ suffering. These are unusual people, but how do they manage to get away with this kind of evil? How do bad things happen in what seems like a good institution?

Edmund Burke wrote “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”. This, says Williams, in a recent article in New Statesman, gives evil far too much credit and agency. He believes that evil creeps upon us in rather a different way, more like a perfect storm that a strategic plan. He outlines a slippery slope argument in which “we are at least half-consciously complicit”.

I am aware that some people find it offensive when others draw analogies between the Holocaust and more contemporary concerns in society. My own view is that it is irresponsible not to learn these lessons, and I imagine Rowan Williams would agree. Williams invites us to contemplate how complicity is constructed in a society, and he draws on the example of the Third Reich (which he calls “a masterclass in executive tyranny”) to illustrate his argument. In order to persuade a populace to collude in genocide, Hitler took advantage of some routine anti-semitism which had been normalised by the repetition of certain tropes and myths about Jews. In a re-reading of Hannah Arendt’s thesis of the “banality of evil”, Williams blames an “erosion of a sense of the ridiculous”. We may recognise ourselves in this characterisation; we find the ridiculous in the times when we have complied with an inducement to game a system, inflate a finding, or we have watched silently as others struggle with disproportionate demands. We remember those occasions when we have failed to confront the exercise of excessive power, and told each other, ‘this is over the top’. That is the ridiculous, and that’s when we need to act, because immorality starts with small concessions and by dint of permissiveness, end up overwhelming us. And that leads us to Donald Trump and his evocations of external and internal threats, barriers necessitated, and birth rights revoked. Williams sees him as an exemplar of someone “divorced from realism, patience and human solidarity”. Ridiculous, in other words, and our antennae should be twitching.

Williams ends: “For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private”. Let me be clear. I’m not setting myself up as some moral arbiter. I’m as flawed as the next person. But I do agree with Rowan Williams that it is imperative to watch out for danger signs in our own environment, and to act according to our consciences. To recognise when governments, corporations, behaviours have become excessive and harmful. It is about trusting our instincts over the hypocrisies we are asked to absorb. It is about having a clear sense of purpose and legitimacy. It is recognizing when the demands of the imaginary and the dishonest displace the integrity of doing your job. And it is about refusing to be silent when ‘theatres of cruelty’ (Couldry 2008) invade your very humanity. Rowan Williams has certainly not restrained himself from denouncing a “new barbarity” in the de-humanising language and expectations circulating in UK universities.

Since reading Christabel Bielenberg’s powerful account of her family’s anti-Nazi resistance during the 2nd World War, I have been preoccupied with what Williams calls “moral luck” – “the fact that some people with immense potential for evil don’t actualise it, because the circumstances don’t present them with the chance, and that some others who might have spent their lives in blameless normality end up supervising transports to Auschwitz”. Perhaps also the converse must be true – that people with the capacity to resist immorality and corruption are not called upon to do so. But that seems unlikely to me, given the moral forcing ground that surrounds us in contemporary academia. Most of us know when things are not right and we are being manipulated into unethical behaviours. But it is easy to lose our perspective when coerced by threats of losing our jobs or punitive consequences for not meeting ‘targets’. As Williams writes, all it takes is “the steady and consistent normalising of illegitimate or partisan force, undermining any concept of an independent guarantee of lawfulness in society”. There are no accidents of immorality – there are choices. The choices may be unwilling, but please let’s start standing up to misuse of power, authority and expertise before we start accepting it as the new normal, and it empowers the next step towards dishonesty and corruption. Because if we let go of academic values of honesty, integrity and fearlessness, then along with them go academic freedom and a little bit more of our humanity.

References

Bielenberg, Christabel. 1968. The Past is Myself. London: Corgi Books. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Past-Myself-Christabel-Bielenberg/dp/0552990655

Couldry, Nick (2008) Reality TV, or the secret theater of neoliberalism. Review of education, pedagogy, and cultural studies, 30 (3), pp. 3-13. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/52405/1/Couldry_Reality_TV_secret_theater_2008.pdf

Morgan, John. 2015. Rowan Williams on higher education’s ‘inhuman and divisive’ jargon. Times Higher. January 29th. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/rowan-williams-on-higher-educations-inhuman-and-divisive-jargon/2018188.article

Williams, Rowan. 2016. A nervous breakdown in the body politic. New Statesman. 1st May. http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/05/nervous-breakdown-body-politic

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