Make Haste Slowly

This is about press regulation and ‘banksterism’, from events after 2008, and 2012

There is an inherent problem with trying to define the essential characteristics of any concept. It’s impossible. For instance, Plato was very interested in attempting to define ultimate forms of knowledge in order to be able to get unfettered access to wisdom, sublunar experiential knowledge being a bit too fleeting for him. His idea was to define the concepts that animated our claims to knowledge.

To take one example, he tried to define ‘smallness,’ being that which underwrites certain claims about size. What he quickly ran into was a problem of comparison. If the moon is smaller than the sun, for instance, the moon would have more smallness that the sun. Unfortunately, ‘more smallness’ would imply a bigger part of smallness was in the moon than in the sun. Likewise, in comparison with Alpha Centauri the sun would have a larger portion of smallness than that next nearest star. So not only would these portions would appear in objects like stars and moons in ways that would be more mind-bending than the original claims, but smallness itself would contain portions whose relative smallness was inversely proportional to their size: More smallness would be less large than less smallness.

It’s true that Plato had a lot of time on his hands, but his instinct to make definitions as a way to deal with the potentially mind-boggling swirl of sublunary experience ought not to be abandoned.

Two examples of late spring to mind. Phone hacking and ‘Banksterism’ are each cases wherein there seems endless scope for claim, counter-claim, relativistic equivocating and ‘ah but…’ So, when an editor prompts a hack to tap a phone to discover where a celebrity has been carousing any outcry can be met with “Well, you bought it!” And in banking any cries of bad lending can be met with “You wanted the re-mortgage so you could get that new car!”

The thing is, those things, the tappings and lendings, don’t smell right. In the first instance we want to say, “Yes, but it’s not journalism,” and in the latter case it seems natural to say “But it’s not banking.”

The response in the case of phone hacking looks to be tending toward a Platonic definition (albeit not in so many words.) The idea will be to sketch out a code of conduct, i.e. a definition of what journalism ought to be. Deviations from this will then be taken to various fora and debated, in fine Platonic style. Where wrong-doing is found, junior heads will roll.

In banking, the opposite has been the case. The concentration has been on outcomes, not prior definitions. So we’ve seen phrases like “too big to fail.” The message in such a phrase is that the institution is its own definition — the form is the function — as so come what may, that institution will be accommodated.

We ought not to plead for consistency across different eventualities or even across time. We have wide-ranging scope for appreciating nuance and should always be loathe to submit debate in the present to a given, prior scheme. But, we should be very keen to apply the idea that there is some way things ought to be and start our debate there. While the aim might not be to define for all time the nature of the professions and practices we want in public life, we should be very keen to carefully describe what we do have, why we have it, and what we really think we deserve.

Looking around is most useful when it’s done carefully. Minding your step takes longer, but saves you from a slip. Making stringent definitions and codes or making apologies for presumed legitimacy have at their core a flight from taking stock. They are signs of haste as they seek to arrest all but the descriptive element of the triple above. In philosophy, the race is won by those who run most slowly. Festina lente — make haste slowly — might be a good motto for our swirling sublunar times.

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