The Post Office scandal is a rare moment of catharsis. Now we must channel this rage | Julien Baggini

In an age in which there is rarely consensus on anything, there is something refreshing about the entire nation coming together in shared outrage. The Post Office Horizon scandal created a rare moment of unity. That we can celebrate.

But it is also worth asking why this happened. While it is comforting to remember that there are at least some issues on which all honest people agree, if we look more closely at the conditions that have enabled this explosion of ethical agreement, they might be as much a cause for concern that they are. to reassure.

This outpouring appears to have been the result of a very unusual and peculiar confluence of factors. First, there is no moral ambiguity. There are no “one side this, the other side that” complications that could muddy the waters. It doesn’t matter what your politics are: this is an obvious miscarriage of justice, plain and simple.

Second, since there is no need to choose a side, the villains of the piece can all be considered “others.” None of the culprits are those we identify as part of our tribe: the bad guys are “faceless bureaucrats” and politicians, almost mythical creatures who walk the corridors of power and not the streets of our neighborhoods.

Finally, there is a clear, compelling story, powerfully told in a television series and watched by millions. Nothing engages the human spirit more than a powerful story, and this one was expertly and movingly told.

For hundreds of postal agency directors, this perfect storm – which merges with the public’s feverish mood – is welcome even if it has been expected for years. But such an alignment of conditions is exceptional. And when they are not all found together, injustices go overlooked, ignored, or even unnoticed.

Consider the absence of moral ambiguity. Few moral issues are uncontroversial, and where there is disagreement, there cannot be the kind of groundswell of public opinion that ultimately put the Post Office scandal at the top of the agenda. policy.

If agency directors are innocent victims, it is also possible to point the finger at people whose lives have been at least as bad, if not much worse: refugees and the homeless, for example. And once we start thinking about how to right the injustices that all these peoples have faced, we run into complications that give rise to differences of political opinion. Immigration can have negative impacts on host communities; The causes of homelessness are myriad and cannot be eliminated simply by building more housing.

Faced with such complications, many simply deny them. This creates divisions with those who take a different point of view or refuse to accept the complexities. Others quickly despair that there is a “right” answer, shrug their shoulders and disengage with a “it’s complicated!” » resigned. Without social consensus, pressing moral problems remain unresolved.

Also consider how the audience’s attention can be captured by a compelling story. This can be a good thing, but it can also mean that our moral priorities are set by the most competent and powerful storytellers, not by what is most ethically important or urgent. The Conservatives, for example, have masterfully used immigration to tell an insidious and controversial story about Britain and its place here.

Too often, the news is dominated by the latest and most exciting news at the expense of the most important ones. The Horizon story is very important, but it pushes Gaza out of the news, which has distracted attention from Ukraine, while all this has distracted from other major crises such as the horrors in Sudan and Yemen.

Even so, we know that morally equivalent stories elicit different levels of outrage depending on the appeal of the victims as characters; In the UK, when photogenic children of white, middle-class parents disappear, it tends to be more noticed than when the same thing happens to working-class or ethnic minority families.

Furthermore, even if the grip of the story is strong when you are in the heart of it, it too often happens that it does not last. Consider how images of three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi dying on a Turkish beach transformed the public mood toward refugees, but only briefly. The fact that stories have more power to move us morally than simple facts and compelling arguments is a sign of a lack of a clear moral compass.

Perhaps the most questionable aspect of our collective response to the Postal Service scandal is the key assumption that the bad guys are different from us. The most disturbing truth is that this scandal is not the work of another race of human beings. Hundreds of workers must have been complicit: managers, auditors, IT team members and many others from the Post Office, the government and Fujitsu accepted the persecution of branch managers without even expressing concern. worry.

For many, the goal of the ongoing investigation is to identify those responsible and hold them to account. A more pressing question – one that really needs to be addressed – is: what made ordinary people complicit in such a scandal? If we have already demonized those we view as bad actors, perhaps we don’t even ask this question. And that has repercussions. If we don’t address them, the same type of complicity could happen again.

There was something cathartic about this collective display of anger. We are right to be outraged and to demand justice for the agency directors. But it’s not always so easy to side with the angels. Many terrible things happen every day in our world that require admitting complexity, compromising to find solutions, and refusing to blame a few bad apples.

If it takes such a storm of moral clarity, identifiable villains, and a good thread for our collective moral conscience to spur us to action, isn’t that a little unsettling?

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