“Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” (Napoleon Bonaparte)
In these troubled times I have been drawn to that phrase in many situations. It seems to me to be the best explanation for most of the important but flawed decisions made by those in authority in the recent unprecedented crises. It overlaps the similar remark known as Hanlon’s razor: “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”. For me there is another term which expresses the problem even better: Wombatularity.
I first discovered this phenomena in 1979 on my first morning as a secondary school teacher. In my new pastoral group there was a particular student who will remain nameless, because he is now slightly famous. Or he is in jail – I can’t remember which. As I was taking that first register he made a simple mistake, which caused amusement for the whole class. When you are called Steve, how difficult can it be to remember whether your own name is spelled with V or PH? I casually remarked, “What a wombat”. Wombats are my favourite Australian marsupials. They are adorable but not over-endowed with intelligence. The young man had made the kind of mistake which in my mind only a wombat would make.
So it was that the pupils of that class, and very soon all my other pupils and amazingly other teachers too, began to respond to many foolish statements with the acclamation, “what a wombat.” Almost twenty years later and a decade after I had moved on from that school I was astonished on a return visit to discover that the expression lived on among succeeding generations of pupils and staff. Silly mistakes which are obvious to everybody but the speaker, which self-evidently stem from foolishness or ignorance or failing to give the question adequate consideration, were recognised for what they were: Wombatularity.
I have spotted more wombats over the last six months than in the previous forty years. In this short time our Government has made so many poor decisions with predictably disastrous consequences. Their responses to the Covid19 pandemic have often been misjudged and even incoherent. Sending folk from hospitals back to care homes was incompetent. The failure to provide sufficient adequate PPE cost many lives. Delaying the introductions of lock-down was foolish. The partial closure of schools was badly managed and the partial return of pupils even more so. The steps taken in the lifting of lock-down and the timings of those steps are leading to rising infection rates of Covid19 and inevitably the re-imposition of lock-downs. The confused changing advice on social distancing and particularly on the wearing of masks has not helped anybody. Planning for the return of all pupils to full time education in September is creating all kinds of difficulties for schools. Now this week we have the debacle of A Level results, with the Government’s predictable U-turn now creating enormous problems for the universities.
In all these tragic situations and more, the frustrations of many people have been greatly increased because the disastrous consequences were entirely obvious in advance to everybody except, seemingly, to the individuals responsible for making the bad choices. Some people see self-interest behind some of the erroneous decisions. Others talk of nepotism or corruption. The narrow area which has directly impacted me most personally has been the lock-down regulations regarding churches and some people think they see a conspiracy against religions in these matters. In most instances I am persuaded by a simpler explanation. It’s just Wombatularity. Too many of the people in authority making the decisions are wombats.
For half a century the Peter Principle has recognised that people tend to be promoted to their level of incompetence. The Education Secretary suggested that awarding A level grades on the basis of teacher’s predictions would lead in years to come to some people being over-promoted beyond their competence and immediately many have joked that this has already happened for many in our current Government. They are all wombats.
It matters that we call out Wombatularity when we see it. In my judgment too many criticisms of our Government and their decisions are actually inappropriate attacks on the character and integrity of our leaders. I prefer to believe that in general they are genuinely trying their best. The more charitable interpretation of most current events is that these are not wicked people. Most just lack the competence to discern wise solutions to very difficult and complex problems. They are charged with balancing medicine and statistics and economics and politics when few have any significant expertise in more than one of those fields. In a few countries politicians are required to have education and experience directly relevant to their Cabinet responsibilities. I have the biased conviction as a former teacher that a teacher would have avoided many of the mistakes made over schools closing and opening and over exam results I also believe that during a pandemic a medic would have made a better health secretary than an economist has. More broadly, many decisions have shown a striking lack of the scientific literacy and fluency with statistics needed to wrestle with the issues. The skill sets of too many politicians are very poorly suited to the challenges they have faced.
With Global Warming in the background, the Covid19 pandemic will not be the last major crisis our planet will face. Systems of government and electoral processes will need to change and nations will need to find ways to entrust power to those who will actually be competent enough to exercise it wisely and for the benefit of the weak as well as the strong. We will need the very best and most capable people we can find to be in charge. Until then the world will remain cursed by Wombatularity. And not even the wombats would want that.