“Black is white – black is white – black is white!”

A motto of the States of Jersey: if you say something often enough – you can turn fiction into fact.

One of the really remarkable cultural features of the States of Jersey is just how frequently notions which are obviously incorrect, profoundly wrong or just plain dishonest become accepted – often unquestioningly – as fact.

I’m not even sure mere stupidity and ignorance can account for this phenomena. Often, there seems to be a need – a want – to believe things which, with a moment’s critical thought, can be seen to be nonsense.

It is fantasising wish-fulfilment on a grand scale when we observe the States assembly – the Jersey parliament – dealing with some subjects. “X or Y just must be so – well, because we really really want it to be.”

Admittedly the States of Jersey suffers from such phenomena to an extreme extent – for reasons I will touch upon later. But similar decision-making habits amongst groups have been carefully analysed over the years, and written about extensively in the social psychology literature. In particular, a characteristic know as “Groupthink” has been well documented.

Originally described by William H. Whyte, and built upon by writers such as Irving Janis and Paul t’Hart, Groupthink describes how groups of otherwise intelligent and well-educated individuals so often come to make the most catastrophically bad decisions. Groupthink deserves a blog-post all of its own, so I won’t dwell on the details today, but briefly.

We see Groupthink manifested when we examine a group in action – for our purposes such as the States assembly – or the Council of Ministers. Not all groups, or similar forms of collective decision–making, will exhibit Groupthink.

There are safeguards against Groupthink which can be employed – and some groups have natural ‘cultural’ safeguards – such as an expectation of critical thought, an absence of unquestioning deference to group leaders and social ‘norms’, individual group members taking personal responsibility to make sure they are accurately informed, an absence of fear of the “in-group” and its leader, and an environment in which challenging established ‘norms’ does not result in near-instant ostracisation.

Now – a question to my enthusiastic reader: which of the above-described cultural safeguards against Groupthink do you imagine are common in the States of Jersey?

Congratulations! You have just “won” the obligation of seeing 20% of your income tax being spent to dig thousands of tonnes of toxic incinerator ash out of St. Helier’s (Jersey’s capital) Waterfront land reclamation sites.

Yep – right first time. – Socially, culturally, politically – the States of Jersey exhibits no noticeable manifestation of the above-listed safeguards against Groupthink.

This is why – by way of example – 500,000 tonnes of toxic municipal incinerator ash was blithely dumped into sea-porous land reclamation sites. No matter that a brief examination of the first book on toxicology which came to hand would have demonstrated the ash to be a toxic-cocktail of PCBs’ dioxins, furans and a variety of toxic heavy-metals such as mercury, cadmium, arsenic, lead, zinc etc.

I – and a few other people – spent many years attempting to persuade the States assembly to stop this dangerous and polluting – and criminally illegal – practice. Even to the extent of taking literature on toxicology and photographs of public exposure to the ash to official meetings.

But – being “out-groupers”, holding a minority view which seriously conflicted with the interests of the group leadership, and thus being in conflict with the majority “in-groupers” – our efforts were dismissed – often literally with that smug, self-satisfied laughter which comes so easily to an unchallengeable “in-group”.

Indeed – there are still some members of the States who were around in the 1990s – who I clearly remember falling into this category.

But – a detailed analysis of the whole toxic ash dumping saga can wait until another post. I’m not sure what the ‘half-life’, if that’s the right phrase, of cadmium is – but I’m sure it’s a very long time. Enough to cause X amount of liver cancers if ingested and inhaled to a sufficient degree. So sorting it out will be a very long-term project.

Jersey is a small, closed, inward-looking society; highly conservative and thus given to unquestioning deference to “authority”. It has no critically independent media whatsoever – and even lacks a tradition of political parties, so politicians get elected as “independents”.

Combine such a tame, “polite” and deferential political environment – with the traps of Groupthink – and we see clearly the lethal combination of factors which has led this small island to make so many disastrous public policy errors.

Just consider one example of recent political controversy in Jersey – only the small matter of people having a right to a fair trial if accused of a criminal offence.

For reasons which I won’t go into now – the Jersey system of administering justice for minor offences was – clearly – not compatible with the island’s international obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. It obviously failed to meet the test of impartiality and fairness which any civilised jurisdiction should meet without demure.

It had been this way for decades – with the probable effect that many hundreds – perhaps thousands – of people had been denied a fair trial over that long time-span.

One Jersey politician, Deputy Bob Hill, fought tenaciously to get this flaw in Jersey’s administration of justice recognised and corrected. He recently succeeded – after a tremendously difficult political battle which must have been hard for him personally.

The Jersey Establishment were – with profound reluctance – finally forced into accepting the facts. After years of resistance.

So how did the “in-groupers” deal with these events? Deputy Hill was ostracised, betrayed by his own Scrutiny Panel which he Chaired, slapped-down by the States assembly and generally subjected to the entirely predictable mocking, irritated sarcasm and whispered condemnations that “in-groupers” customarily display in such circumstances.

But he was right – clearly so. Black was black – not white.

So if you are a Jersey resident, and you imagine that your future is secure in the hands of the States of Jersey – bear this example in mind.

Our glorious leaders – political, and Crown appointees (not that there is a great deal of difference) – flatly refused – for years – in the 21st century – to accept the rudimentary precepts of a fair trial. Something so basic as to have been enshrined in respectable jurisprudence for centuries.

And, moreover, the person who campaigned for modernisation is regarded – for his troubles – as some kind of irritating “enemy within”.

So – the moral of this story? Don’t expect Groupthink in the States assembly to end anytime soon. Even environments in which the challenging of orthodoxy is an accepted part of social discourse still fall prey to it. Witness the barking-mad, un-winnable and illegal war on Iraq, for example.

In a place like Jersey – by the time people shake off the “consensus trance” and begin critical thought – it will probably be too late.

If it isn’t already.

Stuart Syvret

This Posts Book:

Groupthink in Government: A Study of Small Groups and Policy Failure, by Paul t’Hart.

This posts Joke:

A psychologist was walking along a Hawaiian beach when he kicked a bottle poking up through the sand. Opening it, he was astonished to see a cloud of smoke and a genie smiling at him.

“For your kindness,” the genie said, “I will grant you one wish!” The psychologist thought for a moment and replied, “I have always wanted a road from Hawaii to California.”

The genie grimaced, thought for a few minutes and said, “Look, I’m sorry, but I can’t do that! Think of all the pilings needed to hold up the highway and how long they’d have to be to reach the seabed. Think of all the concrete. That’s too much to ask.”

“OK,” the psychologist said, not wanting to be unreasonable. “I’m a psychologist. Make me understand my patients. What makes them laugh and cry, why are they temperamental, why are they so difficult to get along with, what do they really want? I want you to teach me to understand what makes them tick!”

The genie paused, and then sighed, “Did you want two lanes or four?”

One thought on ““Black is white – black is white – black is white!”

  1. Dan

    There is an almost identical site in Hemel Hempstead, near Tescos, just of the A414.

    That site has a cinema/chicago rock/pizza place/aqua-splash steel building cheaply erected on it. Was built before our slightly more upmarket dirty white version.

    Most likely owned by the same firm as our local Waterfront complex.

    The similarities don’t stop there!

    The car park has vents rising up out of it. These are there to vent away all the toxic crap buried in the soil below.

    I wonder why the missed out the vents on our reclamation? Could it be that we have the sea to carry away any nastiness?

    If so, any toxic leakage won’t actually go anywhere. The ocean currents around Jersey simply circle the island.


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