Sorry seems to be the hardest word: of COVID, #auspol, Brown M&Ms and sociopaths

So Scott Morrison, Australian prime minister, has given a blink-and-you’d-miss-it retraction of yesterday’s debacle, when he repeatedly refused to apologise for the consequences of the vaccine stroll-out. Today he came out with

 I’m sorry that we haven’t been able to achieve the marks that we had hoped for at the beginning of this year. Of course I am

And then instantly undercut it with this-

But what’s morte important is that we’re totally focused on ensuring that we’ve been turning this around.

This came a couple of hours after another Liberal leader with the same initials – Steven Marshall, premier of South Australia, had no problem apologising for the long queues to get tested (people in their cars for 15 hours). Marshall, whatever else you might think of him, is having a good pandemic (I suspect it’s relatively easy to do that when you have the calibre of Prof Spurrier by your side. Still…)

So why do we care about this magic word “sorry” or “I apologise.” It’s not like it brings back anyone from the dead, or lessens the consequences of past failures – it doesn’t shorten a lockdown by a day.

Here’s what I think is going on.

Most of us, especially those of us who work in bureaucracies and in situations where those above us have displayed cunning and sharp elbows to get where they are, have had the experience of working for/under someone who takes all the credit for our successes, but never the blame for their own stuff-ups. People who are so brittle and self-centred that on the rare occasion they might do something for “the greater good” will never let anyone forget it. And most of all, these people are (in their own heads at least) very good at avoiding the responsibility for failures. I think it is because they have such low self-esteem that they can’t imagine that they themselves have stuffed up. And their cosmology will come crashing down if they have to say “I was wrong” or “I made a mistake.” They are chronologically adults, but psychologically seem to be children who have clung to delusions of omnipotence for whatever reasons.

These people are not just exhausting (because of the gaslighting they do) but because they make it very very hard (almost impossible) to do a proper analysis of what is going wrong and how to make it less likely to happen in future, meaning that there will be more and more stuff ups, and more and more blame-shifting, with the only end in sight this person buggering off. (They really are not interested in anyone else’s well-being. They’re happy to leave a trail of destruction behind them, assuming that they will have moved on to bigger and ‘better’ things). As James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

So most of us, explicitly or not, develop a simple “brown M&Ms” test to cut through all the bluster, the gaslighting, the blame shifting.

Before we get to it, I guess I’d better explain the Brown M&Ms test. Here’s a quote from David Lee Roth’s autobiography, courtesy of the fact-checking site Snopes.

Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets. We’d pull up with nine eighteen-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, max. And there were many, many technical errors — whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move the gear through.

The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function. So just as a little test, in the technical aspect of the rider, it would say “Article 148: There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, evenly, providing nineteen amperes …” This kind of thing. And article number 126, in the middle of nowhere, was: “There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.”

So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl … well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.

And COVID is literally life-threatening. And people are conducting a Brown M&Ms test. And SM the South Australian version is passing it. SM the Federal version? Not so much.

So, when it comes to narcissists and sociopaths, if they can’t even say “sorry”, you know you’re in trouble. Of course, this is not the end of the story. A really clever sociopath (and sorry, Scott, but you’re not even bush league. You would, in normal circumstances, be a failed middle-manager of a Bunnings store) is good at silky apologies. They don’t mean them, but they know the words folks want to hear. Those are the ones to really watch out for….

NB We need to be really really careful not to conflate sociopathy and psychoapthy with autism. They are completely different things.

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