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The Danger in Not Asking Questions

May 31 2020

One day an acquaintance ran up to him excitedly and said, “Socrates, do you know what I just heard about Diogenes?

Wait a moment,” Socrates replied, “Before you tell me I’d like you to pass a little test. It’s called the Triple Filter Test.

Triple filter?” asked the acquaintance.

That’s right,” Socrates continued. “Before you talk to me about Diogenes, let’s take a moment to filter what you’re going to say. The first filter is Truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?

No,” the man said, “Actually I just heard about it.

“All right,” said Socrates. “So you don’t really know if it’s true or not. Now let’s try the second filter, the filter of Goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about Diogenes something good?

No, on the contrary…

So,” Socrates continued, “You want to tell me something about Diogenes that may be bad, even though you’re not certain it’s true?

The man shrugged, a little embarrassed. Socrates continued, “You may still pass the test though, because there is a third filter, the filter of Usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about Diogenes going to be useful to me?

No, not really.”

Well,” concluded Socrates, “If what you want to tell me is neither True nor Good nor even Useful, why tell it to me or anyone at all?

The man was bewildered and ashamed. This is an example of why Socrates was a great philosopher and held in such high esteem.

It also explains why Socrates never found out that Diogenes was sleeping with his wife.

Lockdown blues

April 21 2020

This film of a police officer telling a member of the public that if he doesn’t do what he tells him he (the police officer) will “make it up” and that he – rather than the innocent citizen – will be believed has been widely publicised – and criticised. The Lancashire Police have apologised for the officer’s “completely unacceptable” language and behaviour. As well they might.

No doubt lessons will be learned and training given. Well, let me summarise that training. There are three things the police should never “make up”: the law, offences or evidence. It really should not be hard to understand this. Or follow it.

The inevitable internal investigation has now started. There are a few points worth noting about the behaviour of the officer making these remarks.

(1) How likely is it that this was the first time this officer thought of saying he would make stuff up to get his way?

Any investigation will necessarily have to focus not just on this incident but on other cases where this officer’s evidence or statements or behaviour may have been critical to the outcome. If the investigation does not do this of its own accord, defence lawyers are likely to make themselves heard.

(2) Note the striking confidence with which he asserted his belief that his uniform, his status would automatically make him more believable. It is not so much the arrogance of the statement which is shocking but its truth. And it is precisely because it is (generally) true, that the officer’s behaviour is so reprehensible. Abuse of trust undermines the confidence which the public and police both need if policing is to work well – especially during lockdown when the police have been given unprecedentedly wide (and potentially oppressive) powers.

Abuse of trust at any time undermines the reputation of every other police officer, no matter how honest or hard-working. As the Lancashire Police’s apology put it: “It only takes one incident like this to undo the hard work of so many.” Quite.

And what of the other officer in the incident? You did notice him, didn’t you? The one who was standing by while this was happening and did not intervene. (The Lancashire Police did not feel it necessary to apologise for his conduct, inaction generally being seen – wrongly – as somehow less deserving of criticism.)

Why might that be? Maybe he did not think what his colleague was doing was wrong. Maybe he did but did not think he should intervene at that stage. Maybe he didn’t think he would get any support from his colleagues or superiors if he did. Or, worse, that he might be criticised or ostracised. (Perhaps the investigation will ask questions about this aspect too.)

Or maybe it was as simple as thinking that he should stick by his colleague. Esprit de corps, teamwork, loyalty to colleagues, to a common aim or work purpose, collaboration are all highly valued (from childhood onwards), trained for, rewarded. It is easy to side instinctively with “us” against “them”. It goes with the grain of human behaviour. Those seen as snitches are not viewed favourably. Little wonder then that people might find it hard to realise that loyalty to misbehaving colleagues is misplaced.

If police officers sometimes find this hard, despite the importance of their role, how much harder is it for the rest of us. So maybe we need to realise that creating the sort of culture where people do not turn a blind eye, where people instinctively challenge or call out wrong behaviour, takes something deeper and more sustained than just a whistleblowing policy, however well-written, and annual training.

Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

Everything must change

March 25 2020

During this time of enforced isolation, these quotes from one of my favourite books caught my attention.

They are from The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa: a wonderfully evocative portrait of a Sicilian aristocrat, Don Fabrizio Salina, at the time of Italian unification. His nephew supports unification because “Everything must change so that everything can stay the same”. (The book is beautifully narrated by Alex Jennings here or in Visconti’s gorgeously lush film version).

Don Fabrizio admires his cynical nephew, clever enough to fall in love with a member of the new moneyed bourgeoisie. But he knows that, as a member of the old ruling class, he is part of “an unlucky generation …. suspended between the old world and the new …. and ill at ease in both”.

The Piedmontese politician sent to persuade him to become a Senator in the new Italy is told by Don Fabrizio that he is not suitable. He has no illusions. He lacks “the faculty of self-deception, that essential requisite for anyone wanting to guide others”. The politician needs to look for those who are “good at masking and blending … their obvious personal interests with vague public ideals.”

There have been few better summaries of the political class.

The politician leaves, his final thoughts on the Sicilians summarised as: “All were fundamentally equal. All were comrades in misfortune.”

Not just Sicilians, these days.

Photo by Mattia Bericchia on Unsplash