Friday 27 November 2009

Institutional Evil

This week has been contaminated with more revelations about child abuse by Catholic priests, an abnegation of power by the police and epic arrogance from the Catholic hierarchy

Evidence given to the Chilcot Enquiry about Gulf 2 suggests that world leaders conspired to create war. Not unusual, but still loathsome.

I’ve written before about The Lucifer Effect, Philip Zimbardo’s research on ‘What leads good people to engage in evil actions.’

I propose that in trying to understand how power, abuses of power and personal responsibility – our own and others – weave together, there first has to be a consensus on what reality is. Reality is slippery and feeds into our desires for a peaceful life and personal power. If it is reality that a hospital passes quality assessments and fulfils performance indicators then we can assume that the majority of the staff will be professional, compassionate people. Managers will be doing an excellent job. Patients will be served well. This reality can exist at the same time as a disproportionate number of patients are dying because staff are slovenly and managers don’t care. People who do care feel disempowered to act, are treated with contempt or themselves abused. (Google ‘hospital whistleblower’ for a depressing litany of examples.)

Peter Vardy and Julie Arliss write clearly about this in The Thinkers Guide to Evil

It is almost always easier to identify institutional evil in retrospect. When a person is part of the institution, many things are taken for granted that may later be seen as unacceptable.

The institutional evil of the Third Reich was clear but it was made up of millions of individual Germans who went along with a system many of them must have known was wrong. At the end of the day institutions are made up of individuals and it is individuals who are morally accountable and responsible if they fail to stand up to the evil in which they participate.


When I trained as a nurse there was a rite of passage that happened when, in the second year, you were judged to be responsible enough to carry the keys. A large bunch of metal attached to a huge safety pin was handed over and worn with pride, hanging in but not resting inside of a pocket, so that they made a rhythmic clashing noise as you walked. The keys were, and remain, a symbol of authority in a highly regulated, hierarchical institution. Now, nurses are expected to wear special belts to contain keys so that a ward doesn’t sound like a prison, and still too many nurses wear this emblem as a mark of status. There’s often a link between this behaviour and not wearing a name badge. They are often more institutionalised that the people they should be caring for, secure and settled in an environment they have made their own. Challenge that comfort and you will encounter venom.

It is far easier to keep your head down, secretly despise this behaviour and, 6months later, discover that you are complicit in it. No one is actually physically harmed – not dealing with droplets of blood on the curtains surrounding a bed, or unpleasant toilets, or lying staff doesn’t actually involve physical contact.

Patients move on, or are considered, always, to be exaggerating or malicious in any complaint they dare to make. The only way to get on is to befriend and mollify the person who abuses their power, and often that means joining them in their behaviour. The purpose of the institution, whether that’s a hospital or any other multi-million pound business, is to sustain the institution. Make no mistake.

It’s not possible to avoid harm in this situation. If you don’t speak up the harm continues. If you do speak up you will become subject to harm, and you will cause harm to other individuals. It’s easy to refer to ‘Keep pure your highest ideal; strive ever toward it; let naught stop you or turn you aside.’ But the consequences of that can be dreadful. The consequences of not keeping high ideals can be even worse.

1 comment:

Adam said...

ah, the Sacred Keys of Power... I remember them well. A wonderful, provocative article. Thank you.