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Friday, 2 November 2012

Received 'Wisdom'


An article in The Spectator a few days ago highlights the dangers of taking what is often termed 'received wisdom' as the absolute and final truth. For one thing, as Douglas Murray points out in 'Jimmy Savile and the dangers of received wisdom' it is never absolute and it can change - sometimes almost overnight. As we have seen in the unedifying spectacle of the BBCs attempts to convince us and itself that all will now be right because the scandal is out in the open, the 'perceived wisdom' we sometimes operate under is deeply and fatally flawed.

Many were afraid to speak out against Savile, some argue because he was just too influential or too well connected. But the bottom line is that we, collectively, often fail to 'speak out' because it might leave us exposed and vulnerable or it might simply put us on a collision course with a majority who prefer to remain unenlightened and are comfortable with their vision of the 'perceived wisdom' on the issue. This was certainly the mindset at the BBC because, as we now know, Savile was simply one among many, though perhaps he was the most blatant example.

We can see this in the arguments over Europe and the €uro. Many of those now railing against it, and saying how fortunate the UK was in not having joined, were, less than twenty years ago, railing against the UK's NOT having joined. There are many more examples to be had as well, particularly in the political world, where ideologues can often be caught out completely changing their story if one has the patience to trawl through their utterances over a period of years.

The issues of sexual orientation, marriage, racism, feminism and a whole range of other big issues of recent years were viewed, less than a generation ago, through a completely different lens of 'received wisdom.' Perhaps the absolute classic in that regard is the whole concept of 'Eugenics' which was popularised in the late 1890s and the early years of the 20th Century. It was, scientifically, a 'logical' extension of Darwin's Theory of Evolution and, on the surface, it appears valid - until one begins to look at how this was translated into the psyche of not just Germany, but several other 'democratic' nations as well. The 'received wisdom' which popularised it was that Europeans were the evolutionary pinnacle - therefore all other races must be inferior. Scientifically this is now proved beyond doubt to be false, but it has taken a World War to eradicate the worst application of that idea. Yet the seeds of it still persist in the minds of some, despite the scientific evidence to the contrary. 

It is true that often we can see the 'Emperor is naked,' but we 'go along with the mainstream' because it is simply too much trouble to challenge it. We all fear being ostracised. Perhaps it is that playground experience of being the one 'left out' or excluded by the other children that influences us. The Savile case certainly tells us a lot about just how much we can 'blind' ourselves if we think exposing something might impact on our security in employment or alienate the people we need (or think we do) in climbing the promotion ladder.

I found myself wondering about this when I looked back at the way the Fire and Emergency Services were suddenly labelled 'elitist, machoistic, male dominated and - that wonderful phrase - institutionally racist around 1999. The reason, 'received wisdom' in a certain section of the political community had decided that there weren't enough women, ethnic minorities or lesbian and gay people in the service and that they were also 'under represented' in the senior ranks. Once again, 'received wisdom' dictated that the existing 'culture' was to blame and discouraged people from the 'under represented groups' from joining. Those who did object were promptly pilloried and shunted off into dead ends for being 'obstructionist' and 'proving themselves unable to accept their own macho attitudes and elitism.

Useless to point out that the service was efficient, that while there was a need for some changes and improvements, the real problem was the lack of candidates who could actually meet both the psychological profile for the job and the physical requirements. These were brushed aside as 'irrelevant' by the 'modernisers' who claimed that this 'received wisdom' was 'outmoded, out dated and simply intended to allow discrimination.' The service was labelled 'too militaristic' by those who generally object to any form of conformity or discipline in themselves (unless they are imposing it on others), on the grounds it was uniformed, disciplined and organised on a rank structure.

I stuck my neck out in one meeting by pointing out that a 'uniform' is merely a form of corporate identity. If supermarket cashiers and staff were required to wear them, why not the Emergency Service? As for 'ranks' hierarchic structures exist in every aspect of human society. That drew quite a bit of flak and probably dented any prospect I might have had for any promotion beyond where I was at that point. My line manager was told that I was 'not a team player.' That, in itself, suggested that the person who said it, had no idea of how the service they were trying to 'manage' actually functioned. The 'received wisdom' kicking in perhaps?

Enter the then Deputy Prime Minister, trotting out his version of the 'received wisdom' and the entire service had to have the heart and soul ripped out of it to be replaced by the philosophy that 'any manager can be a Fire Service Manager' at any level and in any role. Again, the 'received wisdom' was trotted out that experience of fire fighting was unnecessary, all you had to do was 'prove' you could satisfy a number of National Vocational Qualification criteria. Those of us who had some experience of these knew and said at the time, that this failed to show understanding of any task, and again, the 'received wisdom' was that we were 'old dinosaurs clinging to the past.' All 'progression training was scrapped and replaced by a 'pick 'n mix' menu. Again, the 'received wisdom' being that individuals could identify their own training needs and do the training in any order.

'Received Wisdom' or not, that soon showed up some major flaws for the trainers - but the 'received wisdom' at Brigade level and at the heart of darkness - the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister -  was that it was the Trainers who were getting it wrong and not delivering what the students wanted. It is gratifying now, to speak to some of the Chiefs of that period, who should have spoken out, but didn't, and who now admit that those of us pushed out and pushed aside were right. 
Who knows, perhaps, one day, the 'received wisdom' will swing back the other way.

The problem is that 'received wisdom' is often anything but 'wise.' All too frequently, as in the case of Eugenics, it is simply an expression of a form of prejudice. In other cases, it is a useful cloak for bullies or even the veiling of a threat to make others conform.

'Received Wisdom' can be very dangerous indeed.

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