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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Tuesday 20 August 2013

Policing and Politics: Putting Mission Before Tribe

We humans are a tribal species - it's hard-wired into our genetic code.  There's value in knowing what is prey and what is predator in the same way it's useful to have the ability to identify friend from enemy.

Think about that for a second; we identify with others based on a series of often arbitrary markers (type of clothes we wear, music we listen to, profession we practice, sport we play, faith we practice, Political Party we align with).

We externalize people the same way; we can look down upon whole groups of people who dress a certain way, who listen to a certain music or have a different ethnicity.  

I have all kinds of fun conversations with self-identified tribal people (lawyers, politicians, political operatives, law enforcement officers) who will rail with impunity against perceived others and act in a manner they would vilify their perceived opponents for.  One of my recent favourites involved a long-standing Liberal who referred to Conservatives as "all fucking assholes" with no morality, suggesting they need to be shown no quarter.  Of course, I regularly hear the same thing from the other side of the spectrum.  Stephen Harper clearly thinks that way.

Policing is a highly tribal field, partially from necessity; when you're in the line of fire, you need to know who is on your side and who isn't.  The distinct uniforms, vehicles and jargon used (to say nothing of the training) reinforces the notion that you are somewhat above the majority and definitively set against a specific subset - criminals.  Criminals don't wear redcoats, don't all speak the same language, so you have to identify them quickly in some form or fashion.  

It just so happens that crime emerges most commonly from those who are marginalized.  It's a fact of history that, in countries like Canada, there are far more marginalized "visibility minority" communities than "white" ones.  The cognitive association game comes in to play - cops are more likely to assume black men are bad guys in the same way Liberals or Conservatives are more likely to view each other as villains rather than human beings with lineage and motivations.

The reverse is equally true; when you feel threatened by The Other it's a natural instinct to surround yourself with the familiar - people who look, think and speak the way you do.  This is why it's so common to find neighbourhoods that skew heavily towards one ethnic group or another.  It's also why, in fields like policing or politics, loyalty is valued above actual skill.  

The Fords have focused on the concept of Ford Nation - a tribe with a loosely defined belief system that you're either "in" and understand or you're "out" and you're a threat.  Mark Towhey was part of this system, until such time as he began to challenge the behvaiour of the Chief - at that point, he'd disengaged himself from the Tribe and was rebranded as The Other.  Of course, what Towhey was trying to do was his job - not as part of the Mayor's Court but as his Chief of Staff and as a public servant.  Price, however, puts the tribe first - even though his behaviour is questionable, the Fords will trust him as one of their own.

Politics is the essence of tribalism; Parties will fight against The Other and engage in ethically questionable practices to fend off the barbarians at the gate.  Since they are In and everyone else is Out, there's a certain sense of entitlement that comes with the status.  We have lots of examples of how this plays out gracing the headlines these days.

The problem is, we don't accept the concept of tribalism in polite circles any more - it makes us sound too uncivilized.  If you point out that a Tribe - say, a Political Party - doesn't practice what it preaches, it will react in a tribal way by ostracizing or attacking the source of the complaint.  The reaction then gets justified or ignored - they aren't being tribal, it's the other person who is out of line.  Omerta and circled wagons are the norm, rather than introspection and growth. 

Which brings us back to Mark Towhey.  Towhey, a military man, understood the concept of "the mission comes first."  That meant the Ford mandate moreso than even the Fords themselves.  Instead of being a courtier enabler, Towhey appears to have tried to help his boss realign so that their mission wasn't compromised.  For this loyalty to mission, he got fired.  It's tribally-motivated actions like this that will prove Ford's undoing in the end, as is always the case in politics.

What's the solution to this paradoxical dilemma, where competitive fields promote tribal identification, which emboldens bad behaviour, which perpetuates the division?

"The error that I think the force made was focusing the policy towards the rank-and-file officers.  I really think that race relations policy should be geared to top management.  As such, those policies would be articulated by management and it percolates down through the system."

In Other words, leaders need to start leading by example.

We simply have to stop enabling and protecting the folk at the top from their own failings - it's those failings that define the culture which perpetuates the cycle.  Of course, that means mixing up the people at the top of an organization (a police force, a Political Party) to be more reflective of those they will engage with in the field.  It also means teaching the people at the top that it's not about them, nor is it about the tribe - the mission must always come first.

It's as true in politics as it is in policing.

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