Friday, August 17, 2012

Don't tell anyone

One of my bugbears these days, and really since the beginning of my life, is secrecy. I don't trust people who keep secrets. Of course, if they keep secrets then they don't trust me either. So it's mutual.

Secrecy is not the same as confidentiality. When something is to be kept confidential, it's pretty clear what the harm would be if the information came out. In my professional life, it could be a reference letter in which a scientist evaluates the work of another. In personal matters it could be someone's love life. There is in fact a right to privacy and it needs to be respected.

But secrecy is a way for the powerful to remain powerful, and to protect abuse of power. Secrecy of this kind is for some people a way of life, a culture, a cult. Those who subscribe to it know exactly when to keep their mouths shut, and follow their instinct firmly even when their actions are both morally repugnant and risky. Some of the plainest examples are of priests in the Catholic church who were known to have sexually abused children. On all too many occasions, the first impulse of their seniors in the church was to cover up. The list of such cases is incredibly long and without cover-ups it would have been a lot shorter.

Outside the church, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno covered up repeated acts of molestation by his former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. In the end the latter was caught and punished, and the former disgraced in consequence. As the Wikipedia entry points out, "while Paterno did not violate any laws, anyone with knowledge of possible sexual abuse against minors had a "moral responsibility" to notify police. Despite the gravity of allegations against Sandusky, Paterno did not notify state police." And here's the key point: Paterno was not himself a molester. He would have lost nothing, and gained a lot of glory, besides doing the morally correct thing, had he blown the whistle on his assistant as soon as he came to know about it. From this perspective, his action (or rather lack of it) is more inexplicable than that of Sandusky.

At work, I've found myself constantly at war with the culture of secrecy. In the 1980's, as a very junior faculty member in TIFR I was in charge of coordinating graduate courses. But decisions, including those affecting these courses, were taken by the faculty of which I was not a member - because until 2004 (yes that recently!) junior faculty at TIFR could not be called "faculty" or attend faculty meetings. What terrible state secrets would they have stumbled on, one wonders? The result was that as course coordinator I had no input into faculty decisions, and whenever they made a decision that affected my functioning they didn't even have the decency to inform me. This is not a formula for creating a healthy working system, so the system remained dysfunctional for a long time. That however did not seem to bother anyone. The important thing in this case, as in so many others, was that secrecy was more important than a functioning system.

In the good old days Indian Airlines would carefully hide information from passengers. The departure time of a flight might have long passed but the notice board would stubbornly show "on time". No one was ever told what to expect next. Things are not that much better today, since some genius invented the winning line "the flight is delayed due to late arrival of the incoming aircraft" as though that explains anything at all.

Even within my extended family, secrecy has taken on a primary role these days. Not wanting to reveal family secrets to the public (oh now I'm doing it!) I can only mention that senior people are refusing to part with a simple piece of information even though releasing it would spare themselves from accusations of wrongdoing. The natural presumption in such a situation is that the concerned persons are covering up something. And while they might well be, it's also possible that they're not. Perhaps the reason they won't release information is that they are devout followers of the secrecy cult and they understand that once you start revealing things then, really, there's no end, is there? A guilty conscience is more powerful than actual guilt.

When the Right to Information act was passed in India a mere seven years ago, I was very happy about it and I still feel that way. Despite the comments I hear all the time about its potential for abuse, it is brilliant because it offers every Indian citizen the right to know what public institutions are up to. This has struck deep into the culture of abuse of power in our country. If that culture is not yet dead it's only because it's a monster with many heads and Terminator-like powers of regeneration. So secrecy remains the default. I'm reminded of a joke told about a leading organisation of the Indian government: the head of the institution calls his assistant and whispers "I've received an Office Order from the Central Vigilance Commission that we are required to have a Transparency Officer. But don't tell anyone!"

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