Sunday, 6 November 2011

On the Guilt of Bankers

Rowan Williams, writing about St Paul's noted the increasing frustration of people with the financial establishment:

The protest at St Paul's was seen by an unexpectedly large number of people as the expression of a widespread and deep exasperation with the financial establishment that shows no sign of diminishing. There is still a powerful sense around - fair or not - of a whole society paying for the errors and irresponsibility of bankers; of impatience with a return to 'business as usual' - represented by still-soaring bonuses and little visible change in banking practices.

In the same week, on Friday, Derren Brown showed in his Channel 4 series, "The Experiment", how feelings of guilt could be used to manipulate people.

In this episode, "The Guilt Trip", it was frightening to see how a normal likeable person could be manipulated in a few days into confessing to a murder that actually didn't happen. It also shows how careful any interrogation needs to be not to get a false confession of guilt. Of course, this was a lot of heavy stuff at one - misdirection, making him doubt his own memory, etc, and was in a way "speeded up".

But it shows how easily we can be manipulated through feelings of guilt, either by authority figures such as police, or religious leaders. I've seen evangelical mass-meetings where "sin" is understood as "guilt", and feelings of guilt are used to effect a conversion.

Guilt and shame can be useful aids to conscience, but they are also open to manipulation. For depressed people, clinical depression, where there are false feelings of guilt, unworthiness, being found out, then extreme care needs be taken in any religious context not to feed that.

On the other hand, some people who worked as concentration camp guards, for example, became insensitive to suffering, and often didn't feel guilt - indeed they became annoyed if things didn't run efficiently. Some feelings of guilt there would have been good, because that might have made them think about what they were doing. People act in monstrous ways when they don't have feelings of guilt. Guilt and shame can prevent people from acting as if other people didn't matter.

And in fact, the people on the week before in Derren Brown were taking part in a fake gameshow, where they were given progressively worse choices - a good choice and a bad choice, for a hapless volunteer. By the end, they were calling for the worst to befall the hapless person, and calling spontaneously for an agent to trash his room; at that point they functioned at that point without any feelings of guilt about what they were doing.

But when he explained to them what they had been doing, I hope at least some of them felt that their actions were shameful, and didn't try to excuse themselves by saying they were manipulated. At least 20% resisted that manipulation and didn't go along with that, although no one stood up and left the audience or spoke out against the cruelty.

I think is this what upsets people about the bankers and financiers, with their business as usual, their bonuses as the euro verges towards collapse, that there is no sense of guilt here, no feeling of shame that they have done this and caused misery to other people. They have become inured to thinking about how much they are responsible for the state of the world economy, and in the case of one stockbroker - like the people in the Derren Brown show the week before - welcome the opportunity that the failing currencies give, because that means rich pickings for them.

Not all of them will state this so boldly, of course, but the fact remains that they are both cocooned from the worsening effects of the global economy, and are also able to take advantage, and come out from their safe havens to pick clean the bones like vultures, and don't seem to feel any remorse about what has happened, and what continues to happen.

The global stock market, the currency speculation, is all like a gameshow to them, where the choices are starker for the countries involved, but the prizes are great for the players - it is as if they were playing in a virtual world - the disconnect is so bad. Perhaps it is because the speculations involved use computers; there is a dangerous alienation from the real world built into the fabric of the organisations.

In January, this year, Miss AMS Hutton-Wilson wrote a letter in which she touched on this lack of guilt, and commensurate lack of empathy:

The banking sector has a massive public relations problem to which it seems entirely blind, or, as cynics point out, impervious. It has become apparent many really don't care what anyone thinks of them, and that they know they are untouchable. This is a very toxic mix. In the circumstances, it is understandable that the few who thought they could placate the public by forgoing bonuses they would hardly miss are now regretting their "sacrifice" and thinking they may as well revert to business as usual.

What seems completely lacking from the financial ethos is any sense of contrition, of empathy for the people suffering immense personal hardship as a result of banking practice in which they played no part. There seems no willingness among bankers to use their vast financial and intellectual resources to bring about a swift reduction of the deficit, and reduce the need for cuts and job losses.

Unless they grasp this fact, they will continue to be the most hated and despised industry in the land, and eventually no amount of money will compensate for that. Banks can still make money by doing the right thing for the good of all, and over time, regain not only their own reputation, but contribute to the well-being of our citizens. Surely that is worth a little temporary sacrifice?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece Tony,

Many of us are aware that corporate capitalism has become an out of control monster smashing and grabbing far more than it is building. The church is a major authority that is in a position to speak publicly, and should take a strong lead in doing so.

I believe the church would attract a new and powerful following of disillusioned people across the world.