Walk the Line


This page written circa 25 January, 2019.

In "Walk the Line" Cash has the same memory as do I of the rooster from Looney Tunes who kept losing no matter how smart he was. He would get beaten, blown up, or whatever. When all his feathers get blown off, he collects them up and wearily reflects "Fortunately, I keep my feathers numbered, for just such occasions." Cash learns the lesson in the film, and he gets his act together.

"Wilful blindness" is a principle in [British] law that says simply put, if any reasonable person could be expected to have recognised an illegal activity going on around them, then they are deemed to be an accomplice to any such, by having wilfully turned a blind eye, and can thus be found guilty of it.

While wilful blindness is a wonderful principle, there is a difficulty. How do you assess what a "reasonable person could be expected to have recognised"? The difficulty is that blindness may be promoted by automatic thinking mechanisms typical of Kahneman's "fast thinking". People ordered to do something illegal or risky, and people in groups whose members routinely do illegal or risky things, will do those illegal or risky things without "waking up" to the issue, consciously recognising that it is illegal or risky. Financial incentive has also been shown to literally dull perceptions, as well as incentivise wilful blindness.

This tendency to obedience poses a troublesome problem for large corporations, says Margaret Heffernan in her book "Wilful Blindness."

In 1998, when BP bought Amoco, the new combined company instantly ordered a 25-percent cut in fixed cash costs across all refineries. The order was made regardless of the condition of each site. And so, over the next three years, the management responsible for the Texas City site reviewed everything: maintenance, service agreements, personnel, equipment testing, and tools. The 25-percent cut was not a target; it was a "directive," and the cadre of managers responsible for Texas City implemented it. They did so despite their knowledge that, under Amoco's ownership, the plant had been run down and despite repeated warnings about the site's safety. The staff were described as being burnt out. The Texas City Refinery explosion on March 23, 2005, killed 15 workers, injured more than 180 others, and severely damaged the refinery.

Just as no one told [executives] to cook the books at MCI, no one at BP headquarters in London said, "Make the cuts, we don't care if people die." But the effect of the cost-cutting directives was to block out other considerations. When employees were surveyed on corporate priorities, they cited number one as making money and number two as costs and budgets. And even though managers on site knew there were safety problems, were grief-stricken by accidents, and were honestly anxious about how to make the refinery safer, they turned a blind eye to the problems and obeyed.

One of the few of Stanley Milgram's volunteers who did not obey [the request to administer electric shocks] was, he said, inspired by his military training in which he was taught that he had a right to refuse illegal orders. That the military itself doesn't regard blind obedience as an admirable goal should give any executive pause. Some of the gravest mistakes in both the business and the political world have been caused by eager executives, keen to please, hungry for reward, and convinced that blind obedience was their path to success. Who is more wilfully blind: the executives who believe this, or their leaders who allow them to? Military law would blame the boss.

Berns has used fMRI to show that conforming with peers occurs because knowing what a group does or thinks actually alters your perception, bypassing your own analysis. Wilful blindness is not so much wilful, as psychologically inbuilt. When you conform, you do not perceive yourself as conforming. Overriding it requires the equivalent of skepticism, waking up, and then careful review, Kahneman's type 2 or "slow thinking".

Heffernan summarises: "It would be wrong to say BP is the only company in the world that thinks this way. Many have been shown to: Ford, when it calculated the costs of reinforcing the Pinto's rear end, as compared to the cost of lost lives; A. H. Robins, when it chose not to recall the contraceptive Dalkon Shield; W. R. Grace when it chose bankruptcy as a means of shaking off the dust of Libby, Montana. And when the archbishop of Dublin, Kevin McNamara, took out insurance against claims resulting from priests abusing children, what was he doing but placing market concerns over social ones? He could have removed accused priests from their ministries... but he turned a blind eye to people and focused instead on protecting the Church's assets. In treating people as less important than things, work becomes both demoralised and demoralising and we become blind to the moral content of our decisions."

Does the BP Amoco story sound familiar to anyone at Cowboy University? It should. The BP executive's directive and his email asking "which part of 25% do you not understand" is the equivalent of the directive to fire 4 people from EE because some bean counter noticed the unit was not making money. The correct response would have been to ask why, fix that problem, and trim staff to a sensible level in the light of needs. Instead, people who should have known better simply obeyed. All over campus, fewer people are being expected to do more work, implement CEP, open Tauranga, and so on. They are burning out.

If deans do not stand up to the managerialist, budget-driven culture, permanent damage will result. Obedience from people who should know better will destroy Cowboy University's reputation, weaken graduate skills, and stress staff. It is already happening. Being a truly good team player involves having the confidence to dissent. The university is full of type 2 thinkers, so why does nobody refuse the orders?

People do not like to be forced to think. Thus an executive does not want to be told that he is blind, either wilfully or accidentally. Paul Moore, head of regulatory risk at a UK financial institution, was employed to identify risks. He came to see that the firm's management was so driven by earnings that they couldn't, and wouldn't, see the impact that the company's culture had on individual morality [in approving loans] and thus the risk. When he shared his insights with the CEO, Moore was fired. Shortly thereafter, the bank collapsed. That may be vindicating, but he still got fired, and he did not do any good. Joe Darby who blew the whistle on Abu Ghraib was despised even by people who should have rejoiced in the good he wrought. Gayla Benefield was hated in Libby Montana for her work exposing the asbestosis coverup even by the people she was saving from future exposure.

A final charming example (if any of this can be charming) is echoed by Bill Bryson in his 2015 book. He relates the tale of David Helgren, in 1983 an assistant professor at the University of Miami. Given 128 freshman geography students, he asked them to locate thirty places, well-known cities and countries mostly, on a map of the world. He marked very generously... Sydney could be anywhere in the south-east corner of Australia. Eleven students who came from Miami could not even locate Miami. This level of ignorance is no longer startling, and may not have been even in 1983. The Miami Herald picked up the story and it became national news. What is startling is that the university responded by firing Helgren. When a colleague spoke in his defence, it fired him too.

Speaking out usually has no effect, and often gets you in trouble. I predict that nobody will survive speaking out as Cowboy university withers. If you work there, keep your feathers numbered.

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