Being Human: Pursuing success at all costs exacts a high price from society

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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 1 - 7, 2016.


Last month, a research team at Universiti Malaya’s Medical Faculty came under scrutiny for alleged academic misconduct involving the duplication of images and graphs in research papers submitted to four peer-review publications.

The case has raised questions about the kind of ranking pressures that research institutions are coming under that may be eroding integrity in academia, but a further inquiry points to deeper societal issues that need to be looked at squarely.

One observation that emerges from this scrutiny is that competition is intensifying in virtually all fields in today’s society, and this sometimes exposes a dark side to apparent success stories that prompts us to reflect on the priorities that appear to be dominant in current times.

A couple of examples will serve to remind us of the damage that can result from an excessive desire for glory that can be considered to be a feature of this media-driven age. The US media, in particular, has penalised some top-ranking journalists who had succumbed to the lure of public acclaim by fabricating stories in their relentless drive for popularity.

In 2015, Brian Williams, whom the Washington Post called “once the most popular newsman on TV”, was found to have exaggerated details of his travels in a military helicopter during the 2003 Iraq War. He had claimed that his helicopter had been hit by a missile when it was in fact the one in front of his.

Within weeks, Williams was accused of fabricating or embellishing 11 more stories over a decade of reporting. The deluge of criticism over the episode turned him into a social media meme for dishonesty, the Post said in a report.

Unethical conduct by journalists may have a higher chance of being exposed in the US than say, in Malaysia, because American media institutions have taken a number of measures to protect their reputation, including conducting random audits on journalists’ sources.

While media houses in Malaysia do have internal checks for avoiding libel and other reputational risks, anecdotal evidence suggests that serious gaps exist in their vetting protocols that may leave them vulnerable to the kind of fraudulent journalism that can wreck careers.

On the whole, therefore, it would be prudent for media audiences to be discerning in their consumption of content in order to avoid being misled by inappropriately creative reportage. “Let the audience beware” is as sound a piece of advice for the public as can be promoted for sensitising consumers to the risks involved in accepting media reports without filtration.

Questions about media ethics are certainly highly relevant in the current times, but it is worth noting that similar posers are being raised in every significant sphere of our lives.

Let us take another recurrent issue in our society. The leakage of question papers for public exams makes the news so frequently that it is not unjustified to suspect that a virtual industry has grown up around this trickery.

Among the alleged activities are “seminars” organised by private tuition centres where candidates pay for access to “leaked” exam questions, as reported by The Star Online in November 2013.

The fact that these coaching sessions are reportedly packed with students shows that many people are willing to cheat to improve their children’s chances of getting ahead.

So, where do we go from here as a society?

For each of these situations, there are many voices in favour of stricter vetting to catch out attempts to bend the rules, heavier penalties to deter wrongdoing and more lessons in ethics and religious principles to develop a stronger sense of values, particularly among the young.

These may seem to be compelling solutions, but the evidence of cheating in all its varied forms that can be seen on the job — in politics, government, business, education and even religious institutions — shows that there is much to be desired in the outcomes that are being achieved.

Instead of proposing more of the same, therefore, it would be logical to look for the vital missing elements in the solutions put forth. It stands to reason then that a qualitative analysis of the problem could yield some plausible answers.

One lesson to be drawn from the above problems is that a lack of integrity can render the best rules meaningless. So, the question then turns to how best to nurture that quality.

Another observation is that apart from the rules, it is essential to understand human motivations as drivers of behaviour. Therefore, we must concomitantly consider the best ways to influence these drivers so that they lead to positive outcomes.

Integrity, as the word implies, involves bringing the parts of an entity together to create a whole. In the present context, it involves combining rules for good governance with rules of conduct, the addition of deterrents and the induction of values and their internalisation.

This combination can then be used to produce a sense of integrity in a person that can guide his or her conduct.

Along with the effort to inculcate a spirit of integrity, we must recognise our primary motivations and consider their impacts on our lives, and collectively, their effects on our society. This requires some soul-searching, which comes about when we realise that there is something wrong with the way we have prioritised the accumulation of wealth, given in to instant gratification and, along the way, deified the rich and famous, while losing sight of the importance of moderation, restraint and a balanced, ethical life.

The signs that this confusion of priorities may be contributing to the malaise affecting society include the loss of public confidence in the noble professions, hallowed institutions and public figures, as more people than not appear to abandon the straight and narrow in favour of looking out for No 1, first and last.

R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge Malaysia