One of my recent posts mentioned that I have struggled professionally because every time I investigate a field of interest and learn “how the sausage gets made” I become disgusted. It was something of a passing comment in that post, but let’s spend some time with it today.
This is a widespread thing that extends well beyond my professional struggles. It’s a social sickness to my way of thinking (in that I have a personality disorder marked by obsessiveness about rules and conduct not explained by “normal” things like a religion, so I can never quite tell when I am justified or when it’s part of the disorder).
You see, there are rules, mores, folkways, best practices, and so forth that govern the way things should be done, especially within the context of a society. We have plenty of room for debate within that structure as these things do not achieve the desired results, we have trouble enforcing them, they conflict with one another, and plenty of other reasons. Even I with my obsessive, rule-based nature, often recognise that the general rule does not apply to every specific instance. Sometimes another rule must supersede the one in question.
As a quick example, I was watching a professional football game a few years ago between the Denver Broncos and someone else. What I remember is the opposing team completed a deep pass late in a close game. As the receiver made his way for the goal line, the Bronco defender grabbed him by the collar and mask, twisted his head, and violently threw him to the ground. You might expect the penalty for this to be severe and it is (by football standards). It results in several free yards and an automatic first down before any punishment, such as ejection, gets imposed on the individual. But within the circumstances of the game at that moment, it kind of incentivised the brutal takedown. They already earned a first down. That close to the goal line the free yards meant nothing. That late and a possible ejection wasn’t much of a threat. The rule meant to protect the wide receiver became the thing that endangered him.
I like this example because it highlights something else about which I’ve written: the obsession with winning. From my perspective, even though winning means the rule incentivised a brutal takedown to prevent a score, sportsmanship dictates respecting the opponent. If I could not take the player down fairly, then the player earned the score. Winning a game does not justify endangering that man’s health.
That is kind of the theme of this piece though. At least in our modern world (I cannot speak to the history of this phenomenon), society incentivises winning or, more broadly, success. Even professional football is more a business than a sport. Wins translate to dollars, and personal stats translate to dollars. Everything about the situation described incentivised trying to remove the receiver’s head to prevent a score.
We seem to be viewing it often with our legal system right now. It’s always been present, but with multiple cases against Donald Trump (most notably the one in New York in which the prosecutors resigned, with one stating after the fact that he felt Trump was guilty of multiple felonies) and now more news about the January 6th insurrection, the degree to which some people seem above prosecution feels obvious. No one is above the law, but the system won’t bother with pursuing certain individuals.
The idea is that we have a specific process in place. People do these things. People who deliberately do not do those things (more specifically, people who try to take advantage or cause harm) face these consequences. It’s all part of the social contract so that we as individuals can go about our day without a constant sense of survivalism.
But what we find are excuses, most often grounded in a version of whataboutism that I understand without condoning. It’s also how despite what you might consider a cynical view I regard people as generally good. What I am about to describe is a process by which otherwise good people make bad decisions, and I distinguish the action from the person until it either becomes a pattern or displays a more insidious root cause.
It works like this: you will be going about your work according to the prescribed processes and procedures. At some point you will encounter an obstacle – could be of any kind. When you raise the obstacle as a concern to a supervisor for support, the response will be that you circumvent the process or procedure because “time is money” and the company cannot be arsed to put resources into addressing the obstacle.
I have several issues with this. First, because it does not address the obstacle, that obstacle is likely to at least continue in the future if not worsen (and eventually circumventing the obstacle will become more costly than addressing it, but most people don’t work holistically like that).
Second, I do acknowledge that the processes and procedures may not be suitable to handle that particular obstacle. Maybe something about the environment changed and a process designed ten years earlier cannot account for obstacles that have only existed for two months. The point there is not to circumvent the process but to update it. It’s an extension of the first concern.
Lastly, and this is the big one, it contributes to an environment that furthers this phenomenon everywhere. First, if the obstacle is a person doing something wrong, then we have steps to deal with that person. I am not suggesting we need to start stringing up people for mistakes. Some of the obstacles people create are mistakes or the result of poor training, and the response should reflect that. Revisit training, have discussions to make certain things are clear. When the problem is that someone is abusing the system, then hold them accountable no matter who they are. The cost of letting someone slide is high because now it sets the precedent that in these circumstances one can avoid accountability.
Second, and the reason I do not automatically fault people for engaging in this behaviour, is the understanding that others are engaging in it. It ties back to the last sentence of the first point. How can organisation A hold an executive accountable for some behaviour if organisation B lets it slide? Now org A is assuming considerable expense (that they deem avoidable), and that expense cuts into profit.
I sincerely believe that a lot of organisations do things not because they are evil but because they recognise plenty of organisations are, and if they do not compete then they will be run out of the market by those organisations. It’s the same with consumers. Sure, we have considerable power to punish organisations through boycotts, but at this point in history many of us are so handcuffed by capitalism that we cannot afford to boycott the worst offenders. It’s the same as an executive for another org – the knowledge is, they can wage a war of attrition here and force their unaccountable ways on us.
Cutting corners is “the way things are done.” It’s not an exception to the rule; it’s the rule. Win, succeed, profit at any cost except for actual cost. Reduce those as much as possible. When costs increase, prices increase. When costs decrease, prices remain the same. Charge consumers as much as possible, pay workers as little as possible (even though they are one in the same).
Every time I looked into a field, I found myself eventually confronted with that moral conundrum. Scandal and cheating are everywhere, and it’s often out in the open because no one in a position to police the misbehaviour has an interest in doing it. There’s a “greater good” argument (i.e., rationalisation) in place for why a win with an asterisk is better than a loss that positions the organisation for future, socially responsible success.
It lends itself to the notion that the youth are typically liberal, and the older population is generally conservative. Churchill attributed this to older people having a brain, but I think that is only a half-truth. People with more and more responsibility, which does often come with age, lose the ability to afford liberal attitudes. They “have a brain” in the sense that understand the practical workings of the world necessary to survive, but so do the young. That is precisely what the liberal attitude rebels against – the corruption of what is normal and practical. Things are only that way because too few enforce accountability on those who practice corruption. Quite the opposite in fact – we incentivise it because they are the ones who win, who succeed, who profit.
Of course they do. We agree to rules and then the group of people who violate the rules win. With the resources distributed unevenly and a species plagued by bias, we live in a world with an equally uneven distribution of justice. We will not hold those rule-breakers accountable even for the most egregious violations, but we will hold other participants accountable at the mere idea that they might violate one of the rules (and this is in situations where the rule itself is not some corrupt invention aimed at specific participants).
Even in a world where one understands the practical nature of such a system (the whataboutism that leads good people to participate), I cannot get my OCPD brain to cooperate with it. It leaves me in what society might regard as mediocrity, with critics of my perspective feeling that I ought to “grow up.” All that response does in my mind is solidify a sense that it represents their lack of courage rather than my lack of intelligence or maturity. That “grow up” registers in my mind as an invitation to participate in their corruption rather than fortifying the conviction to combat it.