Monday, April 4, 2016

Lying by any other name, including "normalization of deviance," is still lying

In a piece entitled, “What was Volkswagen Thinking?” by Jerry Useem, in the January/February 2016 edition of The Atlantic, We find these words:

The sociologist Diane Vaughan coined the phrase the normalization of deviance to describe a cultural drift in which circumstances classified as “not okay” are slowly re-classified as “okay”

Referencing corporate malfeasance at Volkswagen with its “defeat devices” to camouflage emissions during formal testing, damaged O-rings in the challenger space shuttle a defect known long before the tragedy, the exploding Ford Pinto of Ford Motor Company, and the deadly poisoning by Tylenol, Useem outlines a corporate cultural shift that evokes Orwell’s 1984, making the ethics question unapproachable, given that what is known to be “not okay” easily morphs into “okay” as the narrative accompanying the defective component, or product or process changes through the accumulation of scripts which describe and even define the corporate culture that is bending the ethics of corporate executives. Bombarded by cataracts of information, executives revert to unwritten scripts from the corporate culture to aid them in avoiding complex decisions. As one former Ford employee, Denny Gioia, now a prof at the Penn State business school, put it in the Useem piece: (in reference to the Pinto defects) Before I went to Ford I would have argued strongly that Ford had an obligation to recall....I now argue and teach that Ford had an obligation to recall. But while I was there I perceived no strong obligation to recall and I recall no strong ethical overtones to the case at all.

Sociologist Vaughan describes the danger: (scripts) “expand like an elastic band” to accommodate more and more divergence. Once a decision, recommendation, even warning to “go” or “not to go” depending on the service/product being tested has been released, permitting for example NASA to launch the Challenger, even though the O-Rings were a known and fatal defect,  those issuing the order cannot go back. “It’s like losing your virginity....once you’ve done it you can’t go back.” If you try you face a credibility spiral: Were you lying then or are you lying now?” (words from a teleconference participant with Vaughan as quote in Useem’s piece).

Pressured by Iacocca to produce a $2000 car weighing under 2000 pounds in 25 months, workers at Ford were under extreme pressure to comply;repositioning the gas tank would have required  would have been too expensive in time and money. NASA officials had promised a “routine and economical shuttle”  that would launch 60 times a  year...another unrealistically optimistic commitment that imploded in mid-air with millions watching, losing the lives of all crew members.

Explanations including definitions like “normalization of deviance” to describe ethical lapses, are nevertheless ethical lapses. And when they are made in such high profile theatres like multi-billion-dollar corporations, they also give cover to all other kinds of behaviour that mimics the “giants”....without their having to accept responsibility. Fitting into the corporate culture, even when to do so compromises one’s facts, one’s knowledge of those facts and one’s capacity to live with integrity between the disclosure of the defect(s) which would inevitably lead to job loss, professional reputation loss, and nothing less than post trauma stress disorder, and joining the changed script in awful choice.

In the school yard, after a fight, the predictable verbatim went like this: “He started it!”.... “No, he started it!” when the cookie jar was empty, and the kids were asked about who took all the cookies, the predictable response went: “I don’t know, must’ve been my brother (sister) (father)!” When Dr. Ben Carson is asked to explain his endorsement of Trump, labelled a liar, he responds, “Well, all politicians lie!” It seems to some that the slide from “not okay” in the case of corporate malfeasance to “okay” is so small, it hardly matters. We all know the proverbial, ‘dog ate my homework’ line from students who just did not do their homework; we also know  the “not guilty”plea in a courtroom, from defendants waiting and expecting the state to drop the ball on their case, resulting in a divided/hung jury, or even possibly an acquittal.

Law enforcement is often guilty of a zero tolerance approach to specific behaviours, especially if their political masters have determined that their political lives are at stake if even a tolerance of 1% is available. Like those excessive expectations from Iacocca, and from NASA, and most likely from some in the hierarchy at Volkswagen, people who can rid the world of whatever it is that their investors/electors/superiors/supervisors demand, or can avoid the penalties/price/costs of compliance/non-compliance with some regulation, standard or benchmark, will go to extreme lengths to accomplish whatever has become the “cultural norm”. In churches, if the LGBT community is considered evil, then those charged with administering such a cultural norm will exclude, expel or refuse entry to any who identify as members of the LGBT community, whether they are petitioning for mere membership or for ordination. The war on drugs has sent hundreds of thousands to prison for minor drug offences; they death penalty carries with it a cultural expectation enforced in the prison systems of solitary confinement, meager meals, a mere one-hour-per-day of exercise, and a full life sentence. (In Germany, on the other hand, even murderers and rapists imprisoned for their crimes, are treated with a program that focuses entirely on their reinstatement into the society, including decent meals, the acquisition of skills, family visits, and decent accommodations, as depicted on CBS’ 60 Minutes last night!).

How we think, and how we submit to a cultural norm, in a corporation, a prison, a school or university, a church, and even a family....these are very significant matters, insight into which can only provide much needed and extremely overdue changes in how we make ethical decisions.

Normalization of deviance may be a phrase locked into the lexicon of the sociologists; it is however, forbidden entrance into the world view of the ethicist, except as a path to work seriously to avoid. Normalization of deviance can and does lead to a wider cultural norm in which the bar is set so low as to be virtually imperceptible, making it normal for young people, following the lead of their adult “role models” (that’s a laugh of epic proportions!), to worm their way out of whatever jam in which their choices may have  entangled them.

Today, following the release of some nearly 12 million documents detailing the off-shore tax havens of many of the world’s most most affluent, including politicians, athletes, entertainers, under the ‘cover’ of incorporated shell corporations. Will this too, when their legal teams come to their rescue, be another instance of “not okay” morphing almost imperceptibly into another “okay” thereby depriving many countries of their legitimate tax revenue, while also permitting the account holders immunity from prosecution? Will this be just another “normalization of deviance” that may not directly or immediately result in the deaths of individuals and families, as did the Ford Pinto and the Challenger, but paint another layer of normalization over what really can not and must not be normalized.

Little wonder the world community is having so much apparent difficulty coming to grips with global warming and climate change; if there is a mere shred of evidence that nature has a role to play, then humans will find the loophole, and either block or prevent any move to put a tax on carbon, or any other measure designed to slow the damage to the planet.

When the epitome of normalization of deviance finally takes the stage and garners a majority of votes for the Republican presidential nomination, in the country where the normalization of deviance has been coined by one of their sociologist scholars, as an academic way to portray the overt, conscious, deliberate and obviously likely to be repeated corporate cover-up, thereby absolving all acts of deliberate and willful deviance from standards that would and could and have and will kill people in the pursuit of profit and the people fully engaged in acts that result in the loss of life, all of which losses were preventable and they knew that, then we all know that Scott Peck’s People of the Lie tome applies not only the Pentagon following the Mylai Massacre for which no officer would claim responsibility, but to the whole country. And when the whole country (and possibly now the whole world) has normalized deviance, for its own various narcissistic, greedy, acquisitive motives, then coal companies no longer have to tell the truth about the deadly pollution from their tailings, and the oil companies no longer have to tell the truth about their devastation of the environment in their extraction of crude from the tarsands, then the corporate frackers no longer have to tell the truth about the chemicals in their earth-injections to extract natural gas, nor do they have to acknowledge their processes agency in many of the earth quakes of the last five years, and most likely the next many decades.

Teachers will no longer have to come clean that they really did send the examination home with their students prior to the date it was to be written, thereby providing an unfair advantage over all other students who were given the questions. Lawyers and accountants will no longer have to come clearn about their complicity in those tax havens; politicians will no longer (and haven’t for a long time) have to come clean for promises they made and failed to keep, given their cover of changed circumstances. Those who have betrayed confidences, and then denied their guilt, and even denied that the act took place, will no longer have to come clean as a matter of maintaining trust in any personal or professional relationship.
Call me obstructionist on this one: someone who refuses to comply with the normalization of deviance in order to protect any organization, any family, any school, university, college or church, and certainly any government body that, like the Pentagon, sends young men and women into conflict, plying them both money and the expectation that they round up and kill all the Taliban, the terrorists, or whomever is the designated enemy even though all the stories from the fronts prove that the orders generated more enemies, without resolving the conflict or the issues that led to its commencement. (See Chris Hedges, The Lie of Patriotism, in today’s

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