Wednesday 19 December 2018

On guarding against the groupthink of Bungalow 3

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

People in positions of power behaved badly to people who were powerless in Bungalow 3. We should be shocked, but we should not be surprised. Behaving badly is built into being human.

At first I found only one silver lining. For a few days we were spared academic and trade union calls for more money and more training. So I foolishly hoped we might focus on how to pick out bad apples before they corrupted the barrel.

But no. Academics were soon talking again about more training. In spite of the fact that almost all of the nurses and carers in Bungalow 3 were well qualified professionals with years of experience.

Most people with whom I discussed the RTE documentary don't agree with the academics. They don't think it's about giving nurses a good training.

They think its about getting good people first - and after that, training them to be good nurses.

Why are academics so out of touch with ordinary people ? Why do they so persistently believe more state investment or training will prevent people in power behaving badly ?

Why don't they know that while you can train people to be technically proficient in any field, you can't train them to love or have a tender heart?

Where do academics, and indeed most of the liberal media, get the weird idea that you can train people to be good ?

The answer is - although they are not aware of it - from Plato, whose ideas about the perfectibility of man pervade academe, albeit called socialism, liberalism or political correctness.

Western politics comes down to a choice between Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics. Plato believes man is born good but is corrupted by society. From which it follows that if you want to make a perfect man, you must first make a perfect society.

Conversely, Aristotle believes man is born fundamentally flawed. He can only be redeemed by his own actions. Failing that, he must be restrained by the rule of law.

From Plato's Republic flow all the secular schemes for perfecting man by social training. From the French Revolution you can follow the stream of blood until it becomes a river under Stalin and Hitler. Since the collapse of communism it's been hiding out.

William Golding, in his classic Lord of the Flies, tested Plato's theory about the perfectibility of man. Platonists affected to believe that if you set down a band of boys on a tropical island, free of the frozen hand of religion and capitalism, they would naturally set up something like the United Nations.

But those of us who have put Plato's perfecting theories aside, believe, with Edmund Burke and William Golding, that without a rule of law ready to restrain them by force, the feral youths are more likely to hunt the fat boy to death.

Platonists tend to see evil as some kind of eradicable error that can be eliminated by social engineering, by the right United Nations' resolutions, or by people in blue berets without guns. Faced with a Hitler or Isis they tend to wring their hands.

Aristotelians do not believe in the perfectibility of man. They believe evil men will plague us to the end of time. And that when they visit violence on us we must be ready to repel them with force.

Aristotelians do not believe that all human conflicts can be settled by a chat with President Higgins, by cunning French diplomacy or by blue berets without guns.

By and large Platonists are natural socialists and Aristotelians are natural conservatives. But to lead a moral life we need both philosophers. We need Plato's optimism about social man as well Aristotle's beady eye for his dark side.

The problem is that in our day the Platonist view dominates academe, the professions and the liberal media. Since it lacks an adequate theory of evil this leads to major mistakes when faced with garda corruption or Bunaglow 3.

Aristotelians believe that people are likely to behave badly in two environments. First if you put them in power over weaker people without putting strong safeguards in place.

Second, if you allow them to dominate a small closed group you will get what the psychologist Irving Janis called groupthink.

Groupthink is when a group of people starts thinking like one person. The result is something close to a religious cult. After a while the main aim is group loyalty.

By the time the group goes wrong it is almost impossible to find an individual strong enough to stand out against the group. Janis summed up the baneful power of this solidarity as follows:

The more amiability and esprit de corps there is among the members of a policy-making ingroup, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanising actions directed against outgroups.

Groupthink led Northern nationalism to eventually participate in the evil of the Provos by voting for them, even if it had no desire to do so at the start.

Accordingly what northern nationalism needed was not uncritical support but critical challenge - which it got from this newspaper.

Groupthink puts a premium on loyalty to the group. And this loyalty leads people down dark streets. Sinn Fein's closed mind on Mairia Cahill is proof of this.

But its not just Sinn Fein. Groupthink loyalty leads all political parties astray. The same is true for academics who think any problem can be solved by training or throwing state money at it.

Let me tell these submerged socialists a little story. Some years ago on Radio 4 a liberal presenter interviewed a spokesperson for the Police Federation. It involved an incident where a number of policemen had kicked a black man to death.

The police trade union spokesperson predictably blamed Thatcher's cutbacks. He wanted more investment, more police.

But at this point the liberal presenter temporarily lost belief in his Platonic viewpoint, interrupting the spokesperson to burst out sarcastically: "But more police would simply mean more dead black citizens!"

The police spokesperson could not cope with that. He could not see that what was needed was not more police, but men and women with good hearts who could stand up to peer pressure.

We can be sure Sergeant Maurice McCabe would not have stayed silent if he had been in Bungalow 3. Good people are not 'go along to get along' people.

Almost always they ask questions others don't want asked. But these are precisely the kind of people we need in politics, in the police and wherever power is wielded over weaker people.

Training for its own sake is a waste of time. Moral training must come first. We need to train people the way my mother trained her large brood.

My mother was merciless about mobs. On my first day going to school she warned me: "Never follow a crowd." Good advice for a political columnist - or someone taking up nursing.

The Soviet dissenter Joseph Brodsky also gave good advice on guarding against groupthink. "The surest defence against evil is extreme individualism, even eccentricity."

Last word to novelist Joan Didion: "What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask."

Sunday Independent

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