Thursday, 17 April 2008

Conflict corrupts

Mean Military Man Makes Meal of Miserable Masses

The line about absolute power corrupting absolutely made some sense in the context of the argument for which it was coined, but it tends to mislead I think.

It encourages the view that those most likely to be corrupt are the most powerful, that those most deserving of sympathy in any conflict are the weakest party.

This doesn't seem to have been the author's intention - the original phrase begins with 'power tends to corrupt', not power corrupts. One could equally say powerlessness tends to corrupt. Isn't it harder to be selfless and moral in a state of extreme poverty, than in a state of comfort?

Now to the urgent application of the question: war. It cannot be right that if two parties are at war, the most powerful can automatically be considered the most corrupt. Yet this is the view that appeals to so many, the romantic view of resistance, of David versus Goliath, of individuals versus the system. It may have some truth in a particular situation - often it does not. 

All too often relative weakness leads to ruthlessness, to the justification of 'any means necessary', to attacks on the most vulnerable targets rather than the most justifiable, to terror. And too often the assumption that 'powerful' equals 'corrupt' leads to excuses being made on behalf of the weaker party, the ruthless and murderous weaker party, because they are weak and therefore cannot be corrupt.

So my preferred variation of 'power tends to corrupt' is 'conflict corrupts'. It corrupts the powerful and the weak. It corrupts in war, in politics, in business. The moment conversation turns to argument, the moment there is something to be won or lost, the temptation is there to reach for any weapon, just or unjust.

Conflict is unavoidable. The hardest part of engaging in conflict is to avoid one's own corruption.

The above illustration of the world divided into northern corrupt holders of power, and southern powerless victims was published in the Times Higher Education Supplement, in 1994. This simplistic depiction may be more understandable if I tell you it was commissioned to illustrate a review of a book by Noam Chomsky, someone seemingly in thrall to the notion that the most powerful party is always the most corrupt, as well as being himself a good illustration of the temptation of corruption in argument.

At the time I was quite pleased with the clever-clogs hemisphere-as-helmet and hemisphere-as-soupbowl idea. For balance maybe I should post the portrait I painted of Bush Sr for the Sunday Business Post a few years earlier, published on their front page during the buildup to the first Gulf War. I was also quite proud of that one as a high technical achievement done to a short deadline.


Anonymous said...

That's a good point. I haven't participated in military conflict but in office politics I've noticed that individuals who would otherwise consider themselves highly ethical turn a blind eye to morality when engaged in dispute. I think the overriding themes are "win at all costs", coupled with "the end justifies the means" when survival is as stake.

Unfortunately "survival" is often defined in a completely arbitrary manner and gets applied by many even to situations as trivial as turf wars and avoiding embarassment.

As you illustrate, this ethical flexibiblity happens regardless of strength or weakness of the participants where conflict occurs. I would also argue that many of the less powerful believe they are ethically superior to the more powerful, after all, how could someone who is not them achieve wealth and power without the use of corruption?

kellie said...

Hi Michael, I really like your blog. I especially enjoyed your post on unemployed dads in the news, and the strip with the graph.