Monday, October 04, 2004

The hardest word 

Yesterday I was taking the dogs for a walk when one of them was hit by a car. We live in an estate with private roads where dogs and kids supposedly have the right of way. The trouble is that a lot of the roads are steep, and it is very easy to pick up speed coming down a hill. They are also twisty, and there are a lot of corners where the view ahead is obscured by the (indigenous) shrubbery. The dogs are also a bit thick, and seem to view cars as some kind of threat to their doghood, so they chase them and bark at them unless I get their attention first.

To relieve the suspense, the dog is fine. It was a glancing blow, and she bounced off, and ran away. The car was going too fast, downhill and round a corner, but the dog ran out in front at the last moment so he would have had trouble avoiding her whatever speed he had been going. What really bugs me though is that the driver did not stop. He gestured at me with one hand, not the same gesture I subsequently made to his retreating bumper, but one of frustration: “why can’t you control your dogs?” This, and his refusal to stop and apologise, however culpable he thinks he was, is infuriating.

Once I had calmed down, and talked it through with my wife, who is less volatile and slower to anger than I for three and a half weeks a month, I started thinking about the driver’s reaction. Some people cannot apologise. Their reaction to a fault on their part is to project it onto whoever or whatever is closest and receptive. Thus this guy driving too fast and hitting my dog becomes entirely, instead of partly, the fault of the dog and me. If he had stopped and apologised, then I would have said sorry, he would have said sorry, we could move on.

For a certain type of personality, to apologise is to admit fallibility. If you allow responsibility for the error in your actions, then you snatch away the keystone of your psyche, and the whole protective edifice comes crashing down. This exposes the core that the whole structure was built to conceal: the man behind the curtain. You can’t reveal that person until you have got to know him, and that level of self awareness is too much for most. For most men, anyway. Most women don’t seem to have such a problem with owning up to who they are.

The same effect exists at a corporate and even at a national level. Some companies will admit their mistakes, say “yes, we screwed up, and here’s how we’re going to fix it”, while others deny all responsibility, not to mention liability. For all thinking, rational people who are honest with and about themselves, this is the only acceptable approach. The thing is, though, that all those modifiers whittle the number of people down to you, me and a couple of mates. That leaves the huddled masses, the men on the street, consumers – the electorate – to whom public figures and organisations are answerable. Since they don’t demand that honesty of themselves, it would be hypocritical to demand it of others. Hypocrisy isn’t a problem here, but there is only so far you can go down that road carrying any kind of conviction.

The ones that stand out, then – the honest ones – are the few. The tall poppies, with big expanses of weeds between them. Honesty is the exception, duplicity and deceit the norm. And that is how we got ourselves into these problems. So how do we solve them? People need some real perspective. The only thing that seems to provide that perspective is either an above average intelligence and self awareness, which by definition is rare, or an external shock. The type of external shock that seems to provide the required kick up the pants seems to be a national crisis. A big one. Enough to make a majority of people stop and think about what really matters. In the meantime, our society gets the society it deserves.

Next time, stop and apologise. You’ll be amazed what a difference it makes.

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