Friday, May 29, 2009

Department of Corrections


StatMom posted recently...OK, not so recently - call this part of "The Best of StatMom" - about, among other things, correcting people in authority.

I have strong views on this myself. I believe that, 99+% (not 100%) of the time, the truth is a morally good thing to say. It doesn't always benefit you personally, but then again we don't send kids to school to teach them to be more selfish, or have public service announcements urging people to put themselves first.

First off, it's good for the other person. Let me illustrate that point by taking an occasional event from my own experience. Let's say I'm about to head out the door. Someone else there knows I intend to take my umbrella, because it may rain.

S/he helpfully asks "Do you have everything?"

I respond "Yes, I do," because as far as I can tell, I do.

S/he says "Are you sure?"

I respond "Yes, I'm sure!" If I weren't sure in the first place, I would have said something different in the first place.

I then walk out the door. A few hours later, soaking wet, I stagger back in, wipe my dropping shoes as best I can, and shut the door.

I said "I forgot my umbrella."

Someone: "Yes, I noticed that in the first place."

I: "Then why didn't you tell me?!?"

Someone: "Well, you said you had everything, and you seemed like you knew it all. I didn't want to upset you or start a fight...."

Well, you failed at the first goal, and your prospects for the second don't look too good either right now.

Now let's rewind and rewrite:

I: "I'm outta here?"

Someone: "Wait a second! Do you have your umbrella?"

I: "No, come to think of it I don't. Thanks for reminding me."

I walk over, grab the umbrella, then exit stage left.

A few hours later:

I walk back in, dry as a bone. I shake out the dripping umbrella and put it away.

Someone: "So how was your day?"

I: "Not too bad - and thanks for reminding me about the umbrella. Unlike half the class, I didn't turn my seat into a puddle today."

Now, why does Ending One tend to predominate? Because this happens all too often:

Adam: "I'm outta here!"

Steve: "Wait! Do you have your umbrella?"

Adam: (Embarrassed) "No, and I'm sure I don't need it anyway. Keep your worries to yourself!"

Adam slams the door on a flabbergasted Steve.

Steve learns to let people make mistakes in the future, even when he can easily help them avoid that.

I'm embarrassed to say that once in a while, I've played Adam in this scenario. I haven't got any drug addictions, impregnations or gambling to regret, but I certainly regret this.

Secondly, it's good for society. We need to emphasize truth as a virtue, especially if we're to trust one another. And in an interdependent society, we have to trust each other so much it can be a little scary to think about.

To illustrate, I've also played Steve, including from a very early age. True story from fourth grade:

Teacher, reading aloud while all the students read to themselves: "And so-and-so called..."

I, paying close attention to the book: "Said."

Teacher: "I was waiting for that."

Teacher makes Jeff put away his copy of the book. Jeff is bewildered.

"Is" is the operant term here. Decades later, I'm still bewildered as to why the teacher (1) seemed to have intentionally used the wrong word and (2) didn't use this as an opportunity to teach [a] the class the importance of careful listening and attention to detail and [b] me, later on in private, a more polite way of addressing a superior, such as "Excuse me, but did you mean 'said,' or does your copy say 'called'?"

The schools are indeed an important place to learn right and wrong, as well as respect for authority. We spend a good deal of time devising curricula to teach the students good ways to behave; I see - both in my own schools and the schools of today - much less time and effort devoted to making sure the teachers and school officials set the right example.

Some students may take the following lessons:

(1) It's considered more important for the Indians to be good and to be courteous. The chiefs go by different standards - especially when dealing with the Indians.

(2) Therefore, right and wrong are relative - it's just a matter of whose ox is being gored and how powerful the various sides are. It's OK for people in power to do what they want as long a sthey can get away with it; only the little people pay taxes/toe the line.

(3) Truth is also relative. Teachers are supposed to replace the students' mistakes with truth, but whatever the person in power says is (accepted as) true.

(4) People in power punish people below them for their own personal reasons, no matter who's right or wrong. All their statements about truth and fairness are so much B.S. Truth and fairness has nothing to do with how people in authority act, and nobody - certainly nobody else in authority - cares. Why should we respect authority?

I think we can all agree that these are bad moral lessons for any student.

And there are people in power who will stamp out any mention of any facts they don't like. That's why we have sayings like "Don't kill the messenger" in the first place.

Some people may say that students should be prepared for the real world, and that includes conforming to social norms like cooperating with bosses you disagree with and who may be disagreeable. I couldn't agree more.

There is a difference between personal quirks and moral wrongs. And suppressing truth is a great moral wrong. Students should not be taught that punishing subordinates who correct them - even if it's a little embarrassing - is any more permissible than, say, groping subordinates or lying to them about the status of their 401(k) investments in the company. And if schools are to teach virtue, they need to lead the way in this respect.

The great political philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote in his Leviathan in 1651: "For I doubt not, but if it had been a thing contrary to any mans right of dominion, or to the interest of men that have dominion, That The Three Angles Of A Triangle Should Be Equall To Two Angles Of A Square; that doctrine should have been, if not disputed, yet by the burning of all books of Geometry, suppressed, as farre as he whom it concerned was able." In other words, there have always been some folks who won't tolerate even the most indisputable facts if said facts are any skin off their nose.

Hobbes could have predicted Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's regime three centuries later, in which ideology poisoned even the realms of science, including genetics and linguistics. George Orwell, who understood the Soviet (and Nazi) dictatorships well, had his protagonist in 1984, Winston Smith, say "Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows." And when it's not granted - in a dictatorship where no one can correct the person in charge - evil and death follow.

Soviet Communism is gone. But the need for truth remains.

For example, closer to home, in the worst aviation accident in history, 583 people lost their lives on the Spanish island of Tenerife (one of the Canary Islands) on March 27, 1977 in part because Captain Jacob Veldhuyzen van Zanten of KLM Flight 4805 thought that he had been cleared for takeoff - and crashed into Pan Am Flight 1736. The KLM flight engineer had expressed concern that the Pan Am flight may not yet have cleared from KLM's path, but Captain van Zanten peremptorily overruled him and proceeded with the takeoff.

KLM ultimately accepted responsibility for the disaster, and paid compensation to the victims and their families.

In the wake of the disaster, among other things the commercial airlines worldwide (and the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard) adopted Crew/Cockpit Resource Management (CRM). Under CRM, subordinates such as the co-pilot, flight engineer and others are trained to directly inform the captain of an impending problem. Subordinates are specifically encouraged to respectfully question authority where necessary, and superiors are trained to embrace what could be life-saving warnings.

In fact, the principles of CRM have been successfully applied to air traffic control and aircraft design and maintenance, too.

For example, Captain Al Haynes of United Airlines Flight 232 has credited CRM (he refers to it as Command Leadership Resource, or CLR) with saving lives - including his own - in the Sioux City, Iowa plane crash of July 19, 1989:

Up until 1980, we kind of worked on the concept that the captain was THE authority on the aircraft. What he said, goes. And we lost a few airplanes because of that. Sometimes the captain isn't as smart as we thought he was. And we would listen to him, and do what he said, and we wouldn't know what he's talking about. And we had 103 years of flying experience there in the cockpit, trying to get that airplane on the ground, not one minute of which we had actually practiced, any one of us. So why would I know more about getting that airplane on the ground under those conditions than the other three. So if I hadn't used CLR, if we had not let everybody put their input in, it's a cinch we wouldn't have made it.

(Emphasis in original.)

Encourage open and honest communication in all directions. The life you save just might be your own.

What do you think?


Jennifer said...

Yes. I think yes. But I also think that some of us will speak up regardless, while others never will. Over time I've learned that sometimes discretion is indeed the better part of valour!

Jeff Deutsch said...

Hello Jennifer,


Yes, discretion is sometimes the better part of valor. I hope we can change the world so that doesn't have to be the case quite so often.

The children of today who are applauded, not punished, for giving teachers and other grownups the information they sometimes need are the bosses of tomorrow who effectively harness their subordinates' knowledge.


Jeff Deutsch