When my mother, aged 85, had a fall and was taken to hospital, it quickly became clear that she would not be able, any longer, to manage living by herself, but would need to go into a nursing home and receive, for quite some time, if not indefinitely, extensive nursing care. So I had to try to arrange that, and it meant finding a Home with a room available, and one in which she could receive nursing care. Not easy, but I eventually found one with a vacant appropriate room in the total care area. The next step was to quickly (before the room was taken by someone else) get approval from the government Department of Aged Care, or Health, or Community Services or something, I forget. That is I had to fill in a form setting out her medical condition and so on to request that she get a total care package, and this had to be witnessed. Witnessed, easy. Her regular doctor (visiting her regularly in hospital as her GP) was required as one signatory, and there had to be a second witness of my signature. Second one? Well, let’s make sure there will be no question, get the Senior Nurse Manager, responsible for her care in the ward she was in to add her signature. Had to wait to catch both of them while visiting/on duty, but eventually, done and dusted. Off I set in my car for the some 2 hour drive to the head office of the Department concerned with nursing homes. Found it, walked confidently up to counter, stood in queue, anxious to get back before end of business hours in order to register at the Nursing Home. And reached the counter to find … well, let’s call him Mr B. B for …. let’s say Bureaucrat.
There were several reasons why Mr B was the boss of me now. First he was behind the counter in his familiar space with his gang, and I was outside. Rather like storming a castle really. Second, I had already had a couple of weeks of desperately trying to sort out my mother’s affairs, while staying on the other side of the continent from my own family. I was tired, anxious, and had driven two hours to get to these battlements, sorry, counter, desperate to get the nursing home arranged. He was warm, rested, well fed, at home, and had absolutely no emotional capital invested in my form or mother at all. And, finally, and most importantly, he had absolute power over me. I had to get his approval in order to move my mother into the nursing home. There was no other pathway, no other bridge over the ravine, and he was guarding the bridge. The power balance was really unbalance – he was all-powerful, I was vulnerable and totally dependent on him.
So he took my pitiful little form almost as if he was handling it with tongs and cast a gloomy eye over it. Page 1 ok, it seemed, his face gloomier, page 2 yeees, probably, page 3 and we were on the home straight, nothing could go wrong now, only page 4 with our signatures to go. And that was where he got me. ‘Ah, doctor, yes, but who is this other one?” Then he picked up his guide book, found the page, and began going through the list. All sorts of people were on there, all kinds of occupations, and if I had found, for example, a real estate agent who didn’t know my mother or anything about her but did have a pen I would have been home free. “No, he said, no ‘Senior Nurse Manager’”. “You are kidding” I said, “what do you mean?” “That isn’t one of the approved occupations for signing this form to witness your signature and your mother’s condition”. I went into the routine, told him the situation, begged him to reconsider. Big mistake, I was even more vulnerable now, and showing it. He went through his list again, his finger pausing at each one, saying the title, like a person who is not able to read very well. “No, ‘Senior Nurse Manager’ not there, can’t accept this form”, he said triumphantly, handing it back to me, “Next”.
And that was that. I drove back the two hours arriving too late to do anything else. Next morning got another copy of form, filled it in again, got the doctor to sign it again, and managed to find someone else on the approved list (a Pharmacist, if I remember correctly, who had no idea who any of us were). Headed back on the two hour drive, stood in queue, reached the counter, handed form to the same fellow, now triumphant and showing it. Thought of saying something but could see no point, and feared that he might find another t uncrossed, an i undotted. Back in car, his signature on the approval form, back two hours to the nursing home that had the vacancy the previous day. Rushed through door, waving form to the chap in charge. “Oh”, he said, “sorry, that vacancy has been filled, what a pity you didn’t come in yesterday.”
A couple of days later there was an unexpected vacancy at another, much less appealing home, and I got her in. She was very unhappy to be in this less attractive place with a not very good room, but I was helpless. It was what it was, we were where we were. Six months later she had died, suddenly, of pneumonia. Cause and effect? Who knows.
I tell this story at some length because it seems to me, in a microcosm, symptomatic of a much larger problem. Everywhere we look around the world, and throughout recorded history, we have tens of thousands of events which seem, at first sight, unconnected. Trials proceed in the Hague of people responsible for cruel massacres in Bosnia and Ruanda; in Australia the child victims, stolen from their parents, of terrible treatment in children’s homes (both government and religious based) demand and get apologies from governments and church groups; Abu Ghraib prison, a place once used for torture by Saddam Hussein, is used for torture by Americans; in South America, military coups see men and boys shot, or flung alive from helicopters into the ocean, babies stolen from women; in Africa hands and arms are chopped off innocent civilians of the wrong tribal group; the Gestapo torture and kill Resistance prisoners; the Catholic church (and some other churches) try to cover up pedophile priests who have been raping altar boys for decades; private security firms guarding asylum seekers in mandatory detention in Australia inflict all sorts of major and minor cruelties; in various countries police are captured on CCTV tasering or pepper-spraying restrained prisoners over and over, or beating them to death in prison cells; and so it goes – the Stasi, the Khmer Rouge, the Romans, the British (in India, Northern Ireland, Kenya etc), Aztecs, Indonesians, South Africans, Soviet Union, America (native Americans, Vietnamese, Filipinos and so on), China (harvesting organs from executed prisoners, Tiananmen Square), Japanese, Spanish Inquisition, Israel (Palestinians), Burmese, they, and many others, have been at it in various ways for thousands of years. In Africa, South America, Asia, the Middle East, supposedly civilised European countries like France, Spain, Portugal, Britain, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Italy, have all treated native populations with unspeakable cruelty in hearts of darkness.
Usually each incident is treated as quite separate, explained by particular circumstances, or particular national characteristics, or explained by some particularly vicious leader. But whether they are the small scale cruel treatment of girls in a children’s home, or large scale atrocities of thousands of men working the Burmese railway, or shot in Bosnian fields, or sent off to die in Gulag Archipelagos, the cause it seems to me is the same, and all comes back to my Mr B. For some reason, buried evolutionarily deep, I suspect, within our psyche (if the behaviour of say rams towards a wounded ram, or birds towards a sickly member of a flock are an indication that its origins lie well back in evolutionary time), is a psychological switch that turns on when another human being is within our power to some degree.
We actually have psychological experiments on this human flaw. The two famous (and so devastating in their effects that they were and are still controversial) experiments were the Brown eyes/Blue eyes in the classroom one, and the press button to inflict pain one. Jane Elliott was the teacher who, to give children some idea of what racism was about, following the Martin Luther King assassination, divided her class into blue eyed and brown eyed groups and gave the latter absolute power over the former, then later reversed the power status of the two groups. The effects on the subordinate group were devastating, as was the astonishing willingness of the group arbitrarily given superior status to treat their classmates very badly. The related Milgram experiment, conducted by Stanley Milgram, had students giving what they thought were greater and greater electric shocks, to the sound of screams, to another person who they were told had to be punished in order to learn some words. When told to go ahead by the instructor, students were willing generally to inflict more and more “pain” on the other person. You can read the details of both experiments on Wikipedia, but essentially both demonstrate that people are willing to treat people in their power with great cruelty, and are willing to be more and more cruel if told to be so by someone in authority over them.
It is not really, as Elliott and Milgram have shown us, really very far from my nasty little Mr B, to the bully in the school playground, to the Matron in the girl’s “reform school”, to the policeman with the taser, to the fellow who opens fire with an automatic rifle on a crowded cinema, to the Serbian general, to the commandant of Belsen. That is not to say we should just shrug our shoulders and say “human nature eh, what can you do?” It is to say that in establishing procedures, structures, hierarchies of power, we must do so with as many checks and balances as we can find, and then a few more (perhaps you lot could suggest some). No one should have absolute power, for it does indeed corrupt absolutely.