Using the example of the Pell hearings and BHP dam collapse, Ingeborg van Teeseling highlights the growing culture of the underhanded approach.
Is it just me, or are we watching basically the same thing on our televisions over and over? Here is how it seems to work: an organisation or high-level person does something wrong. Instead of owning up to it and saying sorry, they begin a campaign of spin and denial. Cue then the outside investigations, by journalists, scientists or others. They discover the pattern of whatever the offence was and tell the world. Now the people who were mistreated get seriously angry because they were lied to, on top of being hurt. Instead of cutting their losses, the guilty parties start lying some more and blaming everybody but themselves. This makes the anger grow, the lying increase, and so on.
Let’s look at the evidence.
Case number one: Cardinal Pell and the Catholic Church.
To everybody who has been paying even a modicum of attention, it has been clear that the Church is one of those organisations that has been struggling with a culture of abuse for many, many, many, years. Nevertheless, its representatives tell us during public hearings that they either can’t remember or didn’t know. Those are both problematic defences. Regarding the first one: in a large organisation like the Church, everything has a trail. Meetings are recorded, files filed, discussions documented. If you can’t remember, you can look it up. The second justification is even more awkward. “I didn’t know,” or “Ich habe es nicht gewusst,” was the standard argument at the Nuremberg trials, used by Nazis accused of war crimes. I am not comparing Pell with Goring and Hess, don’t get me wrong. What I am saying is that after Nuremberg, saying you didn’t know, and hoping you can get away with that, simply isn’t feasible anymore.
It is like stating that you were “just following orders.” History has made that explanation unacceptable.
What is also not so smart is blaming others. Pell is now saying that he was lied to by his colleagues in Ballarat, who were obviously deceiving him. To most of the outside world, this sounds like a four-year old who accuses his one-year old baby sister of stealing from the cookie jar. We teach our children to be honest when they’ve done something wrong and we expect at least the same from adults in positions of power. Even worse is hiding behind “the different times” excuse; once you do that, you have to prove that there was a time in the past when abusing children was accepted, and acceptable. I don’t think such an age existed, but if Pell knows more, I am interested to hear about it.
Case number two: BHP Billiton and the Brazilian dam collapse.
Watching the Four Corners exposé on Monday, I was again stunned by the same pattern I described at the top of this piece. Although BHP owns half the mine which flooded its waste into the Doce River system (killing 19 people in the process), it is now pushing full responsibility to its Brazilian partner Samarco. Nothing to do with us, said BHP CEO Andrew Mackenzie, and the last person who could be held to account was him, because “I’ve only been CEO for two-and-a-half years.” Again, a curious argument, especially since the “accident” only took place three months ago. And besides, what happened to “the buck stops with me?” That is why you get paid the big money and even bigger bonuses, Andrew. Yes, I know, you had to take a 40 percent pay cut last year, but with an annual income of $4.6 million dollars, I’m sorry if my heart isn’t exactly bleeding for you. What is also not very impressive is stating that you don’t want to clean up the river, where scientists have now found dangerously high levels of arsenic, amongst other metals. “This was not a pristine river system to begin with,” again sounds like the defence of a small child.
Although I think that the modern people like us have serious problems accepting that “shit happens,” once we think about it, we can usually get our heads around it. What irks us is deception and being lied to. We are all raised with the same basic rules: if you do something wrong, you own up to it, say sorry and make amends. We don’t always do it, but that is what we strive for, in ourselves and others. And especially in authorities, because we entrust them with a part of the running of our lives.
Examples like the ones I just mentioned (and I could go on and on) remove that trust and undermine our assumed faith in the powers-that-be. That is a dangerous precedent because that leads to that mistrust being manifested in a character such as Donald Trump – and God only knows what could be the consequences of a “leader” like that.
Usually, organisations mistake responsibility for liability, and they think that saying sorry is dangerous, because they see it as being potentially expensive. I think they are wrong. Most victims only start talking about money once they feel abandoned, lied to and doubly abused. A deeply-felt sorry might, in fact, be the remedy for what used to be called “American craziness” – court cases over cups of hot coffee resulting in million dollar payouts. What we look for in the people that wrong us is recognition, understanding and the courage to take punishment. We want to see that they understand what they did wrong, that they feel bad about it and take measures to prevent a repeat. Denial, blaming others and hiding infuriates us, because it shows they don’t understand and don’t care about our pain. It’s then that we’ll go to extreme lengths to take revenge and make them pay.
About ten years ago, I got the chance to interview Bill Clinton. We mostly talked about the influence of fathers in his life, but at the end of the conversation, Monica Lewinsky unavoidably made an appearance too. I asked Clinton what he had learnt from the whole affair. I remember he looked at me and said with the embarrassed look of a schoolboy and the twang of a Southerner: “Fuckin’s fine, lyin’s not.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.