Mistakes Were Made

There’s been two legal cases in the news lately involving officials and teenagers, and you’ve probably read about both of them. The first involves a young woman who was strip-searched because administrators suspected she had a double-strength ibuprofen concealed in her clothing, the other involves a threat to prosecute a teenager who sent a picture of herself in a bra to another teenager’s cellphone.

Allow me to recommend to you my colleague Barry Schwartz’ TED talk, “The Real Crisis? We Stopped Being Wise”. I don’t always apply Barry’s arguments in this talk the way that he does, but I think the thrust of what he’s saying is spot-on. This is why I have such a strong interest in the perverse or unexpected affects of bureaucratic initiatives or fixed policies, whomever is promoting those approaches, to whatever ends, because so often we turn to policy to save us from having to work through the human world around us one step at a time, with our hearts and minds fully engaged.

In a wise society, it’s possible that someone would have asked whether the fair enforcement of an anti-drug policy required being tough on ibuprofen. It’s possible that concerns about “sexting” and exploitation of young people would lead to concern about any pictures of that kind. But equally, I feel like in a wise society that someone would say, “No, let’s calm down here and not do something dumb.” If someone didn’t, in the face of the colossal mistake of threatening a prosecution for child pornography or a humiliating strip-search, in a wise society, the person responsible would own up to their mistake, apologize, and try to find a way to make up for their error in judgment.

Just as the common thought about Watergate is that the cover-up was worse than the crime, so too is the stone-walled refusal to admit error in these cases far more infuriating than the original mistakes. The observers who think the enforcement of the rules are more important than the mistakes end up siding with the rules even when they concede that maybe the particular actions of authorities were a bit imprudent. It just makes me feel that somehow we’ve really lost our way. Maybe we never were on the right track in the past, either, but these cases feel in some ways like such a simple matter of the misuse of authority, of letting the rules rather than ordinary human common sense drive the business of everyday life.

EDIT: I’ll add this case discussed today at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog, just for an example of an authority in charge doing the right thing. A Dallas cop stopped a family who ran a red light as they rushed to the hospital to try and see a dying family member before the end. Cop doesn’t pay any attention to what he’s being told and proceeds to berate the driver. But the police chief is a straight-shooter: not only does he say bluntly that his officer was in the wrong, he makes it clear that your authority and training aren’t expected to substitute for your ordinary human empathy and understanding, that there’s no excuse for failing to show common sense. That’s what wisdom first, rules second looks like.

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5 Responses to Mistakes Were Made

  1. CMarko says:

    Dahlia Lithwick at Slate.com has a great article about prosecuting teenagers for sending each other naked photos: http://www.slate.com/id/2211169/pagenum/all/

    Best quotation: “The argument for hammering every such case seems to be that allowing nude images of yourself to go public may have serious consequences, so let’s nip it in the bud by charging kids with felonies, which will assuredly have serious consequences.”

  2. Laura says:

    You know what these cases remind me of that I hadn’t thought of until now–Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” I used to teach that story every year to freshmen and it always has a chilling effect on them as they realize how easy it is to “follow the rules” even when the rules result in some pretty horrific outcomes that make no sense.

  3. aprudy says:

    Summarily paraphrasing Max Weber: hyper-rationalized professional bureaucratic efficiency destroys all social meaning and precludes wisdom… what he forgot or, due to his depressiveness, couldn’t see was what anarchists and Marxists – and even some Progressives – know… the only socially meaning-ful solution to living under these conditions is engaged and coordinated collective action, which of course can be expressed in a myriad of effective ways…
    Or at least that’s what Richie Schuldenfrei, Ken Sharpe and others taught us oh so many years ago.

  4. moldbug says:

    Professor Burke,

    Don’t pull on that! You never know what it might be connected to.

    I’m afraid there is no such thing as a phronetic committee. Wisdom is not a common property of collective action. So Filmer is just around the corner…

  5. CMarko says:

    A new, similar case:

    I am so glad I’m not in high school anymore.

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