Andrew Tickell’s column in this week’s Sunday National is largely given over to the gut-wrenching testimony of those affected by the Post Office ‘Horizon’ scandal. Hundreds of lives wrecked in the name of corporate greed and arrogance. Thousands if we count the families of those falsely accused of dishonesty because the Post Office management was unable to contemplate the possibility that they’d made a mistake by investing total faith in technology rather than putting a little trust in their people. Eventually, that mistake and its implications became so huge that senior managers couldn’t admit to it even if they knew As a result, around 700 people were left financially ruined and emotionally and psychologically damaged.
The most horrifying aspect of this whole affair; the thing that is in a very real sense the stuff of nightmares, is the powerlessness of the victims. They knew they had done nothing wrong. But faced with the oppressive might of a huge corporation and its unaccountable managers they were forced to confess to crimes that hadn’t even been committed. On the basis of the testimony recounted by Andrew Tickell the Post Office is guilty of what must be one of the worst cases of serial corporate bullying on record. It is hard to see how inquiry chairman Sir Wyn Williams can come to any other conclusion.
The sane mind recoils at the thought of what these people were put through by fellow human beings who would doubtless plead that they were only following orders. Perhaps they too were victims. Perhaps they were also bullied into behaving as they did. It may be more palatable to believe this than that they were simply drunk on the power afforded them by their corporate masters. Perhaps they too were powerless against the relentless, merciless grinding of the corporate machine.
We all know this powerlessness from our nightmares. Most, if not all of our worst nightmares involve being powerless to prevent harm to ourselves or those close to us. It is the hopelessness which lends those situations their nightmare quality more than whatever horrors are being inflicted. It is not so much what is happening that is nightmarish as our inability to prevent it. The absence of control. Being devoid of agency. That is the stuff of nightmares. And that is what the victims of the ‘Horizon’ scandal were subjected to.
Most of us are powerless most of the time. What haunts our nightmares is a distillation of the powerlessness we all experience in our waking lives. Perhaps it is this imagined concentration of powerlessness which makes the powerlessness of our reality relatively tolerable. For the victims of the Post Office’s ‘Horizon’ scandal that extreme became their waking reality.
The danger is that this will be represented as are other gross failures of ‘the system’, as a one-off freak occurrence. The truth is that these failures are happening all the time. For the most part, these failures result in no more experienced powerlessness than we have become inured to. But the fact that we are on consciously aware of it doesn’t mean it isn’t doing damage. The experience of being powerless is toxic even when it is insidious. It is doing damage even if we don’t immediately notice it. Its effects are corrosive.
More precisely, it is the stress caused by powerlessness which has an adverse effect on the well-being of both the individual and society. Stress is not caused by the pressure of responsibility alone. What induces stress is responsibility without authority. When we are held accountable despite having no control, stress is the inevitable result. It is not the burden of responsibility that is crippling. It is being simultaneously burdened with responsibility and denied or deprived of the means to cope.
What was done to the victims of the ‘Horizon’ scandal was inhuman. Truly inhuman. It is in no way to diminish that gross injustice to recognise that is an extreme instance of an injustice that is done to most of us every day of our lives. It is the inhumanity inherent in the way our society is organised writ too large to be ignored. It is the stuff of nightmares brought to life.
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