'Wishfulness,' 'yesmanship' and the Harper Conservatives

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At the end of World War II, John Godfrey, the former Director of Britain's Naval Intelligence Division, identified two major weaknesses of the Nazi espionage bureaucracy: ‘wishfulness' and ‘yesmanship'. Wishfulness and yesmanship are not real words; they are strictly Godfrey's concoctions. Yet the behaviours behind these terms have changed history. And they are still with us today.

As wishfulness and yesmanship do not appear in any dictionary, I'll make up my own definitions. Wishfulness seems to be the tendency to believe information that supports preferred views of reality while simultaneously rejecting all contradictory information. Godfrey believed that the Nazi high command, when presented with two pieces of contradictory information, was inclined to believe the option that best fit with their own preconceptions.

A modern-day example: During the buildup to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration maintained that the eponymous weapons of mass destruction should have existed, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. The fact that these weapons could not be found was viewed as an annoying but trivial inconvenience. Those who presented contradictory information like Hans Blix, former head of the UN Inspection Commission, were dismissed as dupes. Journalists around the world bought into this wishfulness.

Yesmanship is the tendency of those with less positional power to agree with those who have greater power, mainly out of fear. Yesmanship feeds on fear of authority; the greater the fear, the stronger the tendency toward blind yesmanship. Yesmanship is an enabling behaviour for wishfulness. Wishfulness, particularly in organizations in which there are dire consequences for insubordination, can give rise to deadly levels of yesmanship.

Yesmanship appears at family tables and corporate boardrooms. Fearful children learn to deliver the news their harried parents want to hear. Wishing to avoid an argument, husbands and wives will spin information for each other by hiding in yesmanship. Ambitious employees learn to support an executive's favoured opinions. "Don't make waves" or "Tell her what she wants to hear and you'll be fine."

In the Nazi hierarchy that Godfrey analyzed, lower ranks would deliberately distort information in order to crawl higher in Hitler's estimation. Yesmanship became integrated into strategic decision making at the highest levels of the Third Reich. Few dared say "no" to the man directly above.

This phenomenon is not proprietary to the military. Yesmanship appears in many civilian organizations around the world, be they non-profit, public or private sector. Or political parties.

During the past few weeks wishfulness and yesmanship have surfaced in the debate over the Conservatives' platform on crime. Stockwell Day infamously proclaimed that his party would spend $2 billion to build more prisons in order to fight "unreported" crime. Given that Statistics Canada had just announced that crime rates in Canada were continuing to drop, Mr. Day's remarks were met with astonished incredulity. According to Mia Dauvergne, co-author of the StatsCan report, the rate of crimes reported to police in Canada for 2009 is down three per cent from 2008 and has dropped 17 per cent since 1999. The Crime Severity Index (CSI), which measures the seriousness of reported crimes, went down four per cent last year compared to 2008. The CSI has fallen 22 per cent since 1999.

Critics charged that Mr. Day was spinning Conservative ideology in order to appeal to his party's base. This is wishfulness in action.

When faced with contradictory evidence from a credible source, Mr. Day reframed the debate by repeating his "unreported crime" canard. Don't let facts get in the way of manufactured truth.

Being seen to be "tough on crime" has been a foundational value of the Conservative Party from its inception. The Harper Conservatives cannot accept that crime is going down. Hence Day's wishfulness.

Day believes that by being tough on current offenders that the rate of crime in the future will go down. Why? What about future offenders? The existence of new prisons will not diminish the levels of crime committed by future offenders. The American experience has been that 30 years of prison construction and longer sentences has had little effect on crime rates and has proven to be far too costly for taxpayers. Can we not learn a few valuable lessons here from our neighbours?

Wishfulness and yesmanship keep a political party on message. From sea-to-sea-to-sea Conservative MPs know what to say about crime. But will more prisons reduce our crime rate further? Or should we instead be investing more in the preventive measures that have lead to the successful diminution of crime in Canada?

Crime is a systemic problem. We have to be willing to address the root causes and be prepared for time lags if we want to create effective change. Unless we do something about the homes, neighbourhoods and the economic system in which future criminals grow up, we cannot keep on building more prisons and locking more doors, then expect the problem to miraculously go away.

For example, research from Washington state has shown that every dollar spent on community-based drug treatment saves $18 in taxpayer costs, including prison expenses. In that jurisdiction, community-based drug treatment provides better crime reduction results than prison. But such a long-term approach obviously has little political sex appeal in Ottawa.

The Conservatives are wrong. Throwing more money at prison construction by itself will not make the crime rate go down. Building more prisons will not make future offenders less likely to commit crimes. Investing in education, communities and the social safety net is the smarter and far more fiscally prudent way to go.

Bill Templeman is a writer, facilitator, consultant and former closed-custody youth worker based in Peterborough, Ontario.

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