Mandela Day

I am not celebrating Mandela Day today.

Mandela Day began as a concept with the celebration of Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday. The basic idea being that Mandela spent 67 years trying to make the world a better place, so we should spend 67 minutes trying to do the same.

Nelson Mandela was one of the great people of our time. I remain in awe of his capacity to forgive. If we all emulated his example just a fraction our world would truly be a better place.

But Mandela Day falls on 18 July and the thing is that 18 July has been a significant day in our family for far longer than the Mandela Day. 18 July is also my dad’s birthday.

I could write the story which tells of the way he, as a judge, had the courage to stand up to a government which had little interest in justice, morality or truth. But perhaps the greater story is that of a man who moved country and reestablished himself at the age of 65.

Thirteen years later my dad has a new legacy. He has made a significant contribution and he continues to work effectively and productively.

My parents created a new life for themselves. There is little talk of what might have been or of the pain that was. There is simply an embracing of what is today.

That is a legacy worth celebrating, and a model worth emulating.

I am not celebrating Mandela day today, because today I choose to honour a man who has had a far greater impact on my life.

The importance of putting the best construction on another’s words

Every field has its fundamentalists and every person has their blindspots.

In the last month or so there has been a conversation on Twitter between a few chemists. I am not sure whether it has resolved, or indeed how it resolved if it did. But the spark was a paper published in a well respected journal which had a rather dodgy comment in the supplementary information. The comment seemed to suggest that the senior author was asking the first author to make up some data. What ensued began to look a little like a witch hunt – more papers with ‘dodgy’ data were revealed in other journals and the hunt was on.

I’m sure that there are real problems in the reporting of chemical data – precisely because of some of the pressures which now characterise academia. But the vitriol and assuming of the moral high ground which was so quickly adopted was a little disturbing (all this from the most objective and rational of beings – the scientists!! – as a scientist myself I feel I can make this gibe)

It has made me pause – in all areas of life we get those who will so quickly adopt an attitude of superiority totally justified – in their own minds – by the fact that they are unearthing something which is not absolutely right. But failing to consider the possibility that the person they are busy ‘exposing’ may not have had the malicious intent they presume. So quickly reputations are ruined and careers trashed. And the whistleblower is left smugly satisfied with the role they have played.

Obviously I’m painting a rather extreme picture – I certainly have been the whistleblower at times, and it is an important role, but discernment is always necessary. I always need to be sure of my own motivations and the motivations of the other before publicly damning them.

At the start of The Spiritual Exercises Ignatius offers simple advice – every good Christian should be more willing to presume the best in a statement made by another rather than the worst. If you cannot see the good in it, then question the person directly in order to ascertain whether you have understood correctly or not. Only once you are absolutely sure that the other intended something which is erroneous or wrong, should you attempt to correct the other in love.

Our public debate would be quite different if we could all start from this presupposition.

Choosing integrity

I came across an article in the UK Independent a few days ago which highlighted the problem of falsifying research results. The proposed response to this kind of fraudulent behavior is to punish the university. I suppose the idea is that it should force each institution to be a little more vigilant about the quality of research published by its own academics.

But it seems to me that this problem of falsification of research results is actually just a symptom of a far wider societal problem which will not be solved by increasing punishments. The question to ask is – why would an academic falsify results? There may be more complex answers but essentially it is to make their work look better, so it can be published in a higher impact journal which can then leverage research funding and ultimately lead to an increase in the profile of the person in their field and/or a promotion within the university.

This kind of choice is not limited to academia. We live in a world which increasingly values extrinsic things – money, power and status.  It is evident in politics – where retaining power becomes more important than service to the people.  We wrangle with each other over these things trying to get ahead even if it is simply within our small social circle.

The real danger though is the presumption that the problem is simply ‘out there’ with ‘other people’ who have no integrity. Integrity isn’t a quality that magically appears when it is most needed. It is something we need to practice on a daily basis. For each of us the point of temptation will be different. It may be that we are willing to let others carry us along doing minimum work. It may be that we charge things to business accounts that we really shouldn’t. It may be that we simply avoid facing painful choices, because if we procrastinate long enough they will go away. It may be that we fail attend to our own shortcomings when relationships become strained.

Integrity is not something that is rewarded in our society. But if we want to live in a good and just society we all have to pull our weight. Nobel prize winner Kary Mullis writes of the experience of realizing that he was one of the ‘elders’ in his field – there was no further body to oversee the field and make sure that things were being done appropriately. We cannot look to others to be the people of integrity. We need to step up. if we want to live in a world of integrity we need to be prepared to examine our own actions, to recognize where we may be falling a little short and to make the changes we need to.