Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Guy Steward: On Integrity

I want to use two historically respected figures to look at how the word ‘integrity’ relates to much of what we make out of the past, because looking back on previous accomplishments and errors gives us valuable lessons as we progress into the future.

Of course, we can learn from them and rediscover and improve on what has gone before—an obviously simple concept.

A lot of good writing has emerged putting the past into perspective amongst all the hype and fake history.

One country that has done this, at least to some extent, is Russia, and it’s been encouraging to hear that schools in Russia now teach the literary works of Solzhenitsyn. Excerpts of the previously banned three-volume The Gulag Archipelago became compulsory reading in all Russian high schools from 2010 on. Get a hold of a copy and you’ll know why. It took me two years to wade through all three volumes, but it was gripping and transformative. Putin on this point has accepted that “without the knowledge of that book, we would lack a full understanding of our country and it would be difficult for us to think about the future.”[i]

Solzhenitsyn himself stated in connection to responses to one of his articles, “I was pleased to see the wide range of opinions, including those opposed to mine, since they demonstrate the eagerness to understand the past, without which there can be no meaningful future.”

Socialism, on the other hand, while professing to be progressive seems to make the mistake of not even glancing over its shoulder at its dreadful past messes. I don’t know how anyone reading Gulag, though, could persist in that thinking. Russia has seen the wisdom of not forgetting the past. They haven’t tried to revise the past to suit themselves (unlike the West, which tends increasingly towards a masochistic historical revisionism to atone for its ‘sins’ of colonialism).

On a personal level and in daily life integrity carries the concept of always doing the right thing even when others are not looking (it has also been said that morality is what you do behind closed doors when nobody is looking) and being consistently moral and truthful—or at least making honest efforts in that direction. It has connections with maths terms, deriving from the word integer. At its heart is uprightness and probity in dealings.

Solzhenitsyn had it. He had also been graced with a tragic sense of life following his incarceration in the gulags.

I’ll take another example, relevant to us today in New Zealand, and that’s the example of the C19th statesman Sir Robert Peel.

Traditionally renowned for his integrity in politics, Peel, though reserved and lacking in social graces, was a forward thinker and was loved and trusted by the English people. He chose to oppose his own party, the Tories, on the issue of the Corn Laws, thus serving the prompts of his own conscience knowing that his obligations were to the people of the nation first and to his Party second.

On that matter he stands as an example to any politician.

A further important contribution of his—which is worth noting here since it is also topical—relates to the fact that while we may at times distrust politicians (and lack of integrity in politics engenders distrust amongst voters) we generally trust the integrity of the police.

One of the reasons for this is that when Peel, as home secretary, started the London Metropolitan Police Force in 1829, he and his associates advocated nine principles, sometimes called the Peelian principles which formed the basis of our own modern policing systems in New Zealand, Australia, the United States, Canada, and England.

Whatever you may think of Peel, it is worth being aware of these since much of it is about this matter of integrity.

I paraphrase them here:
1. The purpose of the police is to prevent crime from happening, as an alternative to repressing crime by military force and legal severity, i.e., if it’s prevented it doesn’t have to be repressed.

2. Their ability to do their duty depends on their gaining public respect and approval of their existence, actions, and behaviour.

3. They are to secure the public’s willing cooperation and voluntary observance of the law (“policing by consent”).

4. The degree of public cooperation ends up being proportionate to the degree of force used.

5. They must be impartial and committed to serving and being friendly, courteous and good-humoured to all people and willing to put themselves on the line to protect another person’s life.

6. They are to use force only when necessary, and the minimum of force necessary when persuasion, advice, and warning as not been enough.

7. The police are the public and the public are the police, both being responsible for the common good.

8. They are to concentrate on their function only and cannot usurp the laws devised by the judiciary by avenging citizens themselves or trying to judge or punish.

9. It is the absence of crime not the visible evidence of police action which is the test of their efficiency.
Someone might enlighten me as to whether these or a variation of them are still taught in police training today. I hope so. Anyway, they have over time rendered our police distinct and, for the most part, exemplary. Trust was standard because of their initial adherence to them. When I was a youngster, respecting the police was a given, and rightly so (even when I was a bit of a teen tearaway). That the government has just acknowledged the bravery and integrity of the officers who apprehended the alleged Christchurch shooter attests to the enduring value we place on these virtues.

I began the theme of this article looking at the need to be honest about the past and continued into the issue of a politician’s preferment of the people over the Party when necessary. I then briefly outlined the origins of integrity in policing. A bit of a meander through a tough topic, but the sum of it is this: integrity is what we expect from those in positions of authority or influence, just as they should expect being held accountable for it themselves. It’s a robust reason for freedom of speech and something all law-abiding citizens can be genuinely concerned about and rightly make a fuss about when it is lacking.

And none of us, though imperfect, is exempt from the challenge to aim for it.

It’s just good to remember that, in the end, Solzhenitsyn’s perspective was considered and respected, which is perhaps why it prevailed.

[i] accessed 13/10/2019

Guy Steward is a teacher, musician, and writer. 

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