I’ve actually been meaning to write about this for some time, as it is one of the problems with modern society, but two recent kerfuffles brought it into sharp relief. Unsurprisingly, the least important one is the one that drew more attention from the media and political commenters.
A week or so ago, it was revealed (from a 2002 interview) that Mike Pence, Vice President of the United States of America, refuses to be alone with a woman not his wife, nor drink alcohol at gatherings where she is not present. This fifteen-year-old titbit has drawn a wide range of comments, which can be roughly sorted into two sets.
The first set praises Mr. Pence for avoiding even the mere prospect of a political scandal that could doom his future hopes and aspirations. (A smaller subset praises his loyalty to his wife.) Even a groundless accusation of sexual harassment – even a hint of one – could tear Pence’s career to shreds. Therefore, Pence is doing the right thing. Just think, they argue, how much trouble Bill Clinton might have avoided if he’d followed a similar rule!
And let’s face it – there is a lot of truth here.
The second set condemns Mr. Pence for sexism and/or misogyny. One subset insists that, by refusing to treat female interns and suchlike as equals, Pence and his fellows are limiting their career prospects. Mentorships and suchlike are important in a great many fields – if women are denied the opportunity to work with someone higher up the ladder, they won’t make as much progress as their male comrades. The other major subset states that Pence et al are effectively blaming women for tempting them (rather than keeping their desires in check) and/or overstating the risk of a sexual harassment accusation.
And let’s face it – there’s a lot of truth here too.
On one hand, being a politician in America (particularly a Republican) means being neurotic about not doing anything that might be taken out of context and used against you. A closed door meeting with a female intern (or someone more senior) could be construed as a potential opportunity for sexual harassment. It is impossible to prove a negative – mud sticks, particularly when your enemies want it to. You therefore have no choice, but to avoid anything that might prove career-wreaking.
On the other hand, it is impossible to build a close relationship between a prospective mentor and mentee (if that’s the correct word) in public. If you can’t hold closed-door meetings, you can’t discuss anything confidential and yes, it is a very short step from this to excluding women altogether, because you will feel (reasonably) that you cannot trust your female subordinates. And yes, because of this women will have far more reduced opportunities than their male counterparts.
In a world run by good actors, there would be no presumption of guilt. A charge of sexual harassment – of anything, really – would be investigated carefully, then dismissed if found to be baseless. There would be no need to fear damage to one’s reputation if one had done nothing to damage one’s reputation.
But our world is not run by good actors. Bad actors do not hesitate to take an accusation and run with it, tearing careers apart. The accused will find himself alone, abandoned by his former friends and allies, as the howling grows louder. By the time the truth comes out, if it ever does, it is too late to repair the damage.
And so the only wise move is to practice the CYA Rule – Cover Your Ass.
I’ve worked in places where hardly anyone had any faith in the bosses. Those places tended to feature a lot of obsessive documentation, rigorous hewing to the rules even when they were clearly pointless … everything would be fine, as long as you could show that you followed procedure. No one trusted anyone else, with good reason. I was glad to leave.
You see this everywhere, if you look. A doctor who sees a patient might be 99% sure that the patient doesn’t need an expensive scan or medical procedure. But … CYA! Better to insist on doing the expensive scan or procedure rather than get blamed for not doing it, if it comes back to bite you. Pointless HR rules and regulations? CYA! All those boring safety talks no one heeds on aircraft? CYA! Pointless security checks at airports? CYA! No one can be blamed as long as procedure is followed – no one cares if the patient dies, as long as the operation was a success.
A couple of weeks ago, the Trump Administration and the UK announced a whole series of new and bothersome restrictions on in-flight baggage. The internet exploded with grumbles, quite reasonably. (The TSA has a bad reputation for stealing stuff from bags, so no one wants to put a laptop in their suitcase.) Trump got a lot of stick for it. But consider – if there genuinely was a warning that terrorists were planning to use rigged laptops to blow up aircraft, just how much stick would Trump get for ignoring it? The only wise move is to move ahead with new restrictions …
… And insist, if there genuinely is a terrorist attack that brings down an airliner, that they did everything they could to protect innocent lives. Why not? On 8/11, Osama Bin Laden was a minor nuisance with delusions of grandeur; on 10/11, he was a supervillain and the greatest threat since Hitler! How much stick did Bush get for ignoring potential threats after 9/11 proved that the threats were real?
We live in a society where far too many people think, when something goes wrong, ‘who can we sue?’ And right now we are reaping the punishment.
And the other kerfuffle?
This link popped up in my Facebook feed a day or so ago (more commentary here). The LA Times professes itself surprised by declining arrest rates in Los Angeles and goes to some trouble to try to look at reasons. This is not, as more aware people will note, a new problem, nor is it localised to California (or even the USA). The Ferguson Effect – where policemen feel that they will not be supported by their superiors if something remotely controversial happens – is in full swing. Policemen are doing as little as they can get away with because they believe, not without reason, that they will be thrown to the wolves if something goes wrong.
And this is a reasonable attitude. Who wants to be tried, convicted and sentenced in the court of public opinion – a court spearheaded by those who can shout the loudest – when they know their lives will be ruined? Why do the job when you might wind up the next target of the mob? Why put your life at risk when your superiors will happily betray you just to please public opinion? When the bonds of trust break down, it’s CYA time. And the principles of CYA do not allow you to take risks when there’s no safety net.
Most policemen I know will agree that bad – i.e. corrupt – policemen should be taken off the streets. They will have no sympathy for them whatsoever. But there is a significant difference between a genuine accident and outright malice (or doing the right thing and winding up in trouble anyway)… and if people are penalised for accidents, they’ll do everything in their power to avoid doing anything that could lead to an accident.
There’s some chuckling – even gloating – online about the Mike Pence affair, from both sides of the political divide. And yes, it does have its absurd side. But policemen not doing their jobs because they’re concerned about personal repercussions is far more dangerous …
… And far too many of our society’s current problems are caused by men and women who are trying desperately to apply the CYA Rule instead of doing their jobs.