Bonfire of the Vanities
Speakers: JOSEPH HEATH, Professor of Philosophy, University of Toronto and author of Filthy Lucre (bio); JENNIFER CORRIERO, Co-founder and Executive Director, TakingITGlobal (bio); PETER WINTONICK, independent documentary filmmaker, winner of the 2006 Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts, former Thinker in Residence for the Premier of South Australia (bio)
Moderator: BRENDA PAUL, VP, Marketing, CIPA
Summary by Andrew Phillips, CIPA Youth Scholarship Recipient
Professor Joseph Heath’s talk addressed the question of why there is rampant greed within society and, more generally, why do people behave badly? Through intelligent analysis of behavioural studies in criminology, Heath brings forward an answer that deconstructs deviance within a sociological context.
Heath began to answer this question by first considering the studies of criminologists whose research shows that criminals have had very interesting things to say when asked about the motivations behind their behaviour. Heath says we would be surprised by their answers because we have developed many folk theories of criminal motivation within society, none of which can truly be held in high regard when looked at critically. Heath points out that we often think of criminals as having an inverted view of reality – an understanding of what is good and what is bad – and that this leads them to behave badly. This is empirically wrong, especially amongst white-collar criminals, who Heath suggests are not much different from any of us. Greed is not a sufficient explanation either. Greed, according to Heath, is too common a motive. Everyone is greedy, in one way or another.
Criminologists suggest that people who behave badly see their world backwards. They look at their world in terms of incentive and opportunity. Heath says we face significant incentives and opportunities to behave badly in our daily lives so why aren’t more of us committing crimes? Is bad behaviour a failure of social control? Is society providing an improper idea of what is good and bad?
Heath believes criminals in fact share in the mainstream consensus of what is right and wrong. Criminals rationalize their conduct. For example, when incarcerated embezzlers (people who have stolen money from their employers) were interviewed, they stated that they were simply borrowing the money and had every intention of paying it back. Heath says this rationalization of bad behaviour comes from Gresham Sykes and David Matza's neutralization theory, which explains how deviants justify their unusual behaviours by providing alternative definitions of their actions and by providing explanations, to themselves and others, for the lack of guilt for actions in particular situations. We know that people often rationalize their behaviour after the fact but what are the implications for the people who do it ahead of time? This way of thinking provides the reasonable framework for these individuals to commit the crime. An example of this, says Heath, is when deviants frequently misuse excuses in a self-serving way. Self-defense can be a legitimate excuse for hurting someone but a criminal might use that to justify a reason to act. Deviants commonly maintain a positive self-image as a person and adhere to a value subscription of society yet at the same time act in ways incompatible with those values. They subscribe to these values abstractly.
Heath connects this analysis to the financial crisis by suggesting that the unique social environment created within the banking system allowed for people to rationalize bad behaviour. Heath says being in an environment where people are receptive to these kinds of self-serving excuses can be criminogenic. According to Heath, society has failed to control people in this context. Bankers were allowed to violate side-norms. They were breaking rules of English (stealing vs. borrowing) to break rules of law. They were committing secondary rather than primary deviance.
Specifically, in regard to the causes of the financial crisis, Heath says that free-market ideology played a key role. Competition creates all sorts of opportunity for neutralizing excuses. An executive might excuse his or her actions by saying they were facing bankruptcy and had no choice. It was do or die. Furthermore, due to the efficient-market hypothesis, the stock market always prices in full information about a firm. When rich executives pilfer money from a company (additional compensation, perks, etc.) they are not actually taking money away from shareholders because its implicit compensation. Bad behaviour is already factored into the share price and thus bad behaviour can flourish freely without alarm.
Professor Heath concluded his talk by saying that what’s crucial about neutralization is that it’s hard to be a white-collar criminal by yourself. White-collar crime works best under the veil of receptive audiences who tolerate these rationalizations for behaving badly. In other words, there is a good reason why Conrad Black didn’t decide to steal your barbeque. We say our society needs to reaffirm decent values but this isn’t the problem. It’s not that deviants don’t share our good values, it’s that they have self-serving excuses. To fix this we must find a way to neutralize the neutralizations.
Following Professor Heath at the podium, Jennifer Corriero opened her talk by drawing on the previously mentioned neutralization theory. Ms. Corriero said that if our goal is to focus on neutralizing neutralizations, we need to consider how our values are shaped when we are young. A fitting statement from Corriero, who’s life’s work has been dedicated to youth development and youth engagement.
Ms. Corriero proposed that we extend the question about how we design our global systems to youth. Through her web dialogue platform she has collaborated with a global network of young leaders to create a discussion guide around such a question. In this discussion she asked youth, “If you could redesign the world what would you do?” Large discussions took place on value systems. Many ideas were presented that touched on social cohesion, ensuring economic and social security and stability. Youth in Rwanda called out for more investment in social ventures. Lebanese youth communities demanded more environmental sustainability. In Colombia, youth had plans for an international anthem that could be sung in solidarity around the world. Ms. Corriero stressed the importance of allowing youth to voice their ideas and the important role of government in recognizing and responding to the ideas. It’s valuable for government to consider problems in this way so as to form a more holistic perspective and a more integrated and sustainable solution. Often, she said, government will only address societal challenges with an institutional lens when we know its much better to have a diversified approach.
As a youth, Corriero took part in her local municipal youth advisory panel in Vaughan, Ontario. She spoke of how this meaningful experience led her and a friend to create an online hub and resource center for youth called TakingITGlobal. TakingITGlobal was created because Ms. Corriero recognized there were few spaces where young people could express themselves in the physical environment. The solution was to create an online space for young people to get involved, have a voice, and develop a greater sense of agency in addressing local and global challenges.
Turning back to the discussion theme for the panel, Ms. Corriero said that the best way to shape good values for youth within society is to provide an open space for dialogue. TakingITGlobal provides an online space for a global youth network expanding over 10 languages and over 12 million people. Over this network important questions like how to engage citizens in public policy have been debated.
Ms. Corriero also works in the non-digital world. She helped develop and launch the youth caucus at the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva in 2003. Ms. Corriero continued to insist that young people need to be empowered as learners, developers, and agents of change. Government needs to leverage their large collective and individual potential.
Ms. Corriero then recited an inspirational poem she wrote at a moment in her life when she was pressed to find an answer to the question of how change can actually happen in the face of such great global challenges. The poem expressed how throughout society people have unique and diverse ideas on what can inspire and catalyze change. It eventually became clear out of the contrasting multitude of perspectives that no one idea is perfect and that diversity is what is natural, beautiful, and useful.
Jennifer Corriero ended her talk by suggesting that as we reflect on the future of shaping policy as citizens and consumers we need to create more chances for exchanging ideas and beliefs to solve problems like the financial crisis.
During question period she expressed frustration at the fact that Canada has yet to create a national youth strategy while other nations have made great strides in that area. She took issue with the fact is that there is no direct channel or effective outlet to engage youth through government because it is very fragmented. Ultimately, she considered this as an opportunity for better strategic planning for the future.
Peter Wintonick explained that in his talk he would retrace the steps of his travels around the world to various watershed moments in history. Through this journey he hoped to impart lessons about the power of people, resistance, protests, and the missing link in this debate about the collapsed economy and the role of the consumer and the citizenry.
Mr. Wintonick expressed that images have the power to change the world and real people working together can change the world. Accompanying his talk was a vivid visual presentation.
He stated that great recessions shock and awe us and offer us time to reflect. The original bonfire of the vanities was a medieval ritual based around none other than burning away our vanities and self-love. Wintonick described this event as a watershed moment. A watershed moment is when rainwater and individuals can choose to go one way or another based on their own opinions and values. The metaphor is about choice for Canadians and how we will decide to create our own sustainable futures.
Mr. Wintonick believes we need new models to guide us. He’s not convinced the wisdom of economists or current governing structures are our best choice. As a great admirer of Sir Thomas Moore he is admittedly utopian in his vision. He does not believe people in positions of power because of wealth or expert capability should be able to have a hand in deciding our individual destiny.
Wintonick brought forth an interesting example to illustrate his belief in the power of the people and the power of an image. He spoke of how in Krakow, Poland, in 1945, the government tried to stop residents of the Nowa Huta district from building a Roman Catholic church. Fighting persisted but eventually the citizenry came together and erected a large wooden cross in the place where the church was to be built as an icon of protest and as a statement that people, not government, had ultimate power over shaping their own destiny. Wintonick calls this the “watershed cross” as it represents the struggle of ordinary people to organize and defend their rights.
As a second illustration of public power and collective voice, Wintonick brought us to Iceland, a country who’s bankruptcy in October of 2008 signaled loud and clear that the global financial crisis was entering a new and vastly more dangerous phase, in the absence of global financial regulation. The president privatized the banks and the people were left helpless. “The global financial crisis melted Iceland,” said Wintonick.
As a juxtaposition to this, Wintonick showed us imagery of the Icelandic countryside and specifically a place in the high plains called “althing,” the original site of the oldest parliamentary institution in the world. This was a place where outdoor assemblies would be held and public discussion was free and open to everyone. This, to Wintonick, is the ideal form of democracy.
Mr. Wintonick then took us back to present day Iceland and told us a story of how regular citizens came together and acted in one voice, in the free and open spirit of althing, to mobilize in a movement called the “kitchenware revolution” and become the first group to oust the governing administration. Again, the power and resilience of people and images to change the world was reiterated.
Mr. Wintonick ended the journey and brought us home to more familiar surroundings with images from the recent G20 protests in Toronto. He commented on how the security state is growing very effective at repressing movements and protest but that people can still have a powerful impact. He noted the capacity of the 2003 anti-Iraq-war protests that mobilized millions of people in cities around the world. It is clear to him that protests still hold valuable agency for change within society.
Mr. Wintonick concluded his speech by providing some commentary on global justice, markets, and how society could best be structured. Wintonick stated that the present economic system of capitalism is incompatible with democracy. An economic model reliant on growth working within a world of finite resources will not be ecologically or socially sustainable. In regards to global justice, he sees the creation of wide and diverse networks for global movements as the best way to bring social justice and cited Jennifer Corriero’s youth network as prime example. Wintonick envisions a world with green economics and open civil societies where the privileged few make room for everyone else to share their visions. He challenged us to throw our greed-based institutions into the bonfire of the vanities and live simply so that others may simply live.
Utopian thinking? Maybe so, but Peter Wintonick believes every society and state can embrace the opportunity of making a better world. If anything, we can at least create images and visions of better worlds. By building utopias we can define our assortment of individual and collective stories. Utopian thought, the missing link, can challenge the status quo and create massive change.