Friday, 17 April 2009

On bobbies and benchmarks

For those of us who respect the British police force, the last couple of weeks have been rather unsettling. In particular, disturbing scenes have emerged of a least two very aggressive incidents during the G20 summit. One was in which a man with his hands in his pockets was struck hard in the back with a baton by a policeman in the Darth Vader uniform they increasingly wear on such occasion and then pushed to the ground: he died shortly afterwards. Another was one in which a woman was struck with a gloved fist in the face and then pushed very aggressively. In both cases there appear to have been very unsatisfactory attempts to cover up the incidents. One or two other oddities have added to the unease: at least some of the policeman had the numbers on their uniform covered up, something which is never supposed to happen.

The world-famous British bobby is important to us, not just in practical terms but also symbolically. To those of us who are law-abiding members of British society (which I mostly am) there has always been something rather reassuring about the idea of the unarmed, amiable and incorruptible British copper, the very epitome of fair and gentle law-keeping. How we despised those lesser breeds (I name no names) governed by vicious gendarmerie/guardia civil/ polizie /policia with their tendency to beat the heck out of anyone who even looked vaguely troublesome. Unfortunately, even those of us who don’t protest or steal cars are increasingly coming to realise that all is not well in the British police force. One reason why it has taken us so long to realise that there is trouble is because we have been misled by focusing on a single benchmark: the use of firearms. The fact is that (thankfully) our police still do not carry firearms except on very special occasions. (They are hardly ‘unarmed’: their batons and sprays are pretty unpleasant.) Anyway my reading of the situation is that although we have been worried about our police force for many years we have been reassured by the mantra ‘Relax, things are all right because they don’t carry guns’.

Now I could talk more about the police force and may do so; there are fascinating and troubling issues emerging in Britain as the ‘Protestant consensus’ within our society ebbs away rapidly. What I want to do though is comment on the peril of keeping your eye on single benchmark.

In a complex world it is easy over issues of concern to mark a line in the sand at some particular point. You turn your attention elsewhere, constantly glancing back at your line in the sand and, as long as it remains untouched, you conclude that all is well. So, for example, I consider that everything is all right as long as I can walk down to the city centre in daylight without being mugged. There are many such benchmarks in society and in our lives. Indeed I suspect almost all our public and private morality is composed of a series of such benchmarks. So, for instance, we consider that our freedom as Christians is intact because (benchmark issue) they have not closed down places of worship. True, but we ignore the fact that in a dozen other unbenchmarked areas our freedom has been eroded. We consider our political liberty to be unchallenged because we can participate in that great benchmark, democratic elections. We overlook the hundred other ways of freedom has been drained. We imagine that we have free speech because the police do not march into newsagents and carry away particular issues, but we ignore many other ways in which our liberty is constrained. (As an aside I think we work on the benchmark basis in our teaching. Our exams include almost all the key topics that they did 20 years ago, and as this is the case, there is an assumption that therefore everything must be well. However what you find is that in most cases these have been reduced to such a token representation that their presence is effectively irrelevant.) It is rather like denying coastal erosion on the grounds that the key lighthouses still exist while ignoring the fact that they are now on islands rather than on the continuous cliff they once were.

If you are an evil person, being able to recognise these benchmarks is extremely useful. You simply leave them intact and work your way around them. So for instance someone could probably take it over Britain but all would be well as long as you kept the flag flying and the Queen in residence. Perhaps they have…

What’s the answer? I suspect it is the necessity of shunning isolated benchmarks and instead trying to see the whole picture. The problem with doing that is very simple: it is hard work.

Have a good week