Cock-up rather than conspiracy

My facebook feed seems, at times, full of conspiracy theories these days. A recent essay lists some of the most prominent, and starts to suggest a psychology which gives rise to such ideas. A lot of the items in my feed are the result of one extremely intelligent facebook friend having, to my mind, dropped out of criticising the trends of modernity into something resembling outright paranoia.

I have some experience with government, albeit at a very local level; I also have some experience with uncovering wrongdoing in the police (systematic racism, in fact), and in investigating the cover-up of that – and then, as a result of some success there, being asked to investigate several other cases of alleged conspiracy and cover-up. This has led me to be extremely sceptical of any conspiracy theory which requires widespread participation by large number of people. By and large, I do not think such conspiracies can avoid the well-known tendency of secrets to slip out as soon as they are shared with more than one other person – and even one is dangerous. I am, however, always ready to entertain cock-up theories – organisations will always have people in them making mistakes (which is another reason to be sceptical of vast conspiracy theories – someone among the hosts of conspirators WILL make a mistake, and the more people who are involved, the faster the first mistake will occur, and the more mistakes will happen…)

Once a mistake has happened, however, there will very frequently be an attempt to cover it up. Perhaps this will be fairly innocent – the person who has made the mistake will try to put it right, and then pretend it never happened. More serious, but still not a conspiracy, the erring individual will try to blame someone else. However, most seriously, and particularly in organisations which attract a lot of loyalty from their members (and the police and the armed services are particularly strong in that characteristic, as, often, are political parties), other people will join in the cover-up because admitting it would make the organisation look bad. This is a particularly strong tendency, I have found, with people who are guilty of sexual offences – people in organisations have regularly turned a blind eye to these or just failed to take action, rather than produce negative publicity – it’s largely in that way that, in the UK, people like Jimmy Saville and Cyril Smith managed to get away with abusing children for many years. These are rarely conspiracies – people have generally not got together to agree to say nothing, they have just decided individually that it isn’t something they want to make a noise about.

That mechanism also operates to protect people who have deliberately acted in a reprehensible manner, for instance discrimination or petty harrassment fuelled by discrimination. If it is going to make the organisation, or the part of the organisation involved, look bad, other people will often feel that the harm to the reputation of the organisation outweighs the demands of justice and honesty and the harm to the individual and will try to minimise the action, to deny that it happened, or to cast blame somewhere else.

“Blame someone else” at that point often extends to the blackening of the character of the victim, as indeed it did in the first case I dealt with involving police corruption. If the person complaining can be shown to be “a bad person”, then their complaint can be ignored. That happened; the individual concerned was prosecuted and, in fact, jailed as a result of a train of fabricated statements, missing evidence and general bias. The trouble was, it wasn’t possible to prove conspiracy. All the people involved (with perhaps two exceptions) were motivated primarily by protecting the police rather than being induced by threat or reward to join in something which they knew was illegal; they didn’t get together and say “We need to fix this guy”, they just went along with what was happening. The problem was more systemic than it was a specific conspiracy.

It took over ten years of effort (by myself and many other people, among whom were a team from another police force) before a number of police officers were prosecuted or disciplined, and before the victim was fully vindicated and compensated. Even then, only about half the people who should have suffered sanctions actually did, and the amount of compensation was less than one might have wished. That makes me doubly suspicious of people who claim, without access to internal records, to have uncovered wide-ranging conspiracies within governments, and to have done that within hours of an event.

What does strike me, however, is that many of the allegations floating around the internet look a lot like blackening someone’s character in much the same way as was done with the victim in the case I started with. I have in mind particularly the venom which seems to be directed at Hilary Clinton. The current president is a self-admitted sexual abuser, but since his election there are suddenly claims that Hilary Clinton has been involved in even more serious sexual abuse, and people seem to be getting excited about that rather than about the fact that the person actually in power is someone who admits to abusing power. The pressing issue has to be the person currently in power, because they are in a position to continue abuse (and, in the case I’ve been referring to, it was to an extent sufficient that several policemen resigned, thus ensuring they wouldn’t repeat their own misuse of power, rather than being formally disciplined or prosecuted).

If there has, indeed, been historic abuse, obviously that should be investigated and, if proved, acted upon (though I have some sympathy with people who suggest that we should not be doing that many years after the event, and with various men in their 70s and 80s who find themselves in jail for things done 30 or 40 years ago; jail, especially for sexual offences, is an appalling place for the elderly). The thing is, in that particular case, given the fact that apparently approximately 50% of the population cordially detest Mrs. Clinton, it is inconceivable to me that a conspiracy could have covered up that kind of systemic misdoing, particularly given my comments about cock-ups. It’s extremely unlikely – and it diverts attention from the monstrosity of Trump.

I fear that my facebook friend, whose sympathies have most definitely historically lain on the left (and further left than I would ever be likely to go) is actually assisting the alt-right in sharing that particular conspiracy theory.


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