Excuses, excuses


The foundation of evil often lies in excuses. People rarely behave badly proudly, more often visible wrongness rests on a sunken floor of self justification.

A few years ago I attended a weekend course which was in essence, despite its somewhat cultish overtones, a form of mass cognitive and behavioural therapy. At the end of the process the participants were expected to identify the core story which explained the unhappiness or failure which had inspired them to take the course. For nearly all of us the story was similar: 'It's so tough being me, I can't be expected to change (even though I know I should)'.

Institutions too have excuse narratives. Journalists see themselves as truth tellers in a world of lies and so for News International employees almost any action  was justified by this heavy burden. The Jimmy Savile scandal, which seems certain to implicate many others, emerged from a culture in which stars were seen as super humans who could not be expected to conform to the mores of ordinary mortals. MPs collectively justified fiddling their expenses on the grounds that they were underpaid as a consequence of having to pander to an ignorant anti-politician populism.

To complicate matters, these rationales generally contain sufficient truth for their users to see them as a reflection of reality rather than a defence mechanism. Indeed, this is what makes them so powerful.

The impact of institutional excuse making is not restricted to shocking events. Too many medical professionals implicitly justify treating patients with condescension on the grounds that they have to tend to an ignorant, self destructive, hypochondriac populace. In many schools low achievement among teachers is justified by the backgrounds and dispositions of poorer pupils.

A few weeks ago I travelled back with an RSA colleague from a school meeting which had featured just this rationale, albeit elegantly disguised. She told me that in another school where she is a governor such talk had been banned: 'we are simply not allowed to talk about a problem of pupil or parent attitude; we have to see the problem in terms of the school's failure to engage'. At the time I felt such self censorship was redolent of what might, for want of a better term, be called political correctness. But so deep and so damaging can institutional excuses be that I now see the point of taking as extreme a measures as disqualifying certain ways of talking.

As individuals and as institutional actors, we should reflect deeply on the normative propaganda which limits our imagination and justifies our failings. As a form of hygiene we should commit to name and confront these excuses, distinguishing real problems to be confronted from mere self-justification. After all, were we really to believe some of the stories we tell ourselves then surely we should change our profession or reconsider our lives.  Such a discipline will not only make it less likely that we will cause harm but also much more likely that we will gain insight into our capacity to do good.

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