A Skewed View of Normal

The front page of Sunday's New York Times carried an eye-opening story about statements a number of Congressional Representatives--both Republican and Democratic--had entered into the Congressional Record before the House vote on the health care reform bill. The eye-opening bit was that it turned out the statements had been written not by the Representatives themselves, or even by a member of their staffs, but by a couple of lobbyists paid by the biotechnology firm Genentech. 

How did the ghost writing come to light? As with many a class cheating scandal, what let the cat out of the bag was that so many of the Representatives used the lobbyists' words whole cloth. And someone (presumably someone at the Times) noticed how, well, similar all the statements were.  

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The revelation should have been at least highly embarrassing to the Representatives involved. After all, if they'd pulled that stunt in a classroom--lifting someone else's words and presenting them as their own--they'd be slammed for cheating and plagiarism, and probably for violating the school honor code, as well. At the very least, they'd flunk the paper. At some schools, they might find themselves expelled. 

Of course, one could argue that we don't hold politicians to the same standard as schoolchildren. After all, most national politicians have speechwriters who craft their public words for them. But, still. There's a line between having a staff person take your ideas and craft them more articulately, and taking a propaganda statement from a private, vested interest ... especially one that, in some of the cases, had given you campaign money ... and parroting it verbatim as your own words. Especially because the statements were submitted into the record at the request of the lobbyists, not because the politicians felt an innate need to add those particular words to the debate. It's duplicitous, because knowing the source changes how you consider the argument. 

The staff people interviewed for the article argued that the lobbyists' statements reflected points of view supported by the Representatives in question. But surely, even if they didn't grasp the ethical implications involved, wouldn't those responsible have felt at least a little queasy about how it would look, if discovered? That it would risk the appearance of a member of Congress being little more than a Charlie McCarthy puppet mouthpiece of a lobbying or pharmaceutical firm? Not to mention a copycat puppet, repeating the same exact words as 40 other Representatives?

Apparently not. 

"This happens all the time," one lobbyist said. "There was nothing nefarious about it."

"We were approached by the lobbyist, who asked if we would be willing to enter a statement in the Congressional Record. I asked for a draft. I tweaked a couple of words. There's not much reason to reinvent the wheel on a Congressional Record entry," one Representative's chief of staff shrugged. 

That, to me, was the real eye-opening part of the article. I'm always fascinated when I read statements by people that reveal far more than the speakers intended about the lenses through which they view the world, especially in terms of what's "normal," "fair," or "right."

I had the same reaction when I read the resignation letter of an A.I.G. vice-president in the op-ed section of the Times last winter. The executive in question was part of the infamous London financial products division that is generally credited with doing more to bring down the global economy than any other single group of financial sorcerer's apprentices. But miffed that he was being asked to give back part of his hard-earned $750,000 post-tax bonus, he announced that he was going to give it all away and was resigning, because the request was so unfair. 

His lengthy venting and argument made far less of an impression on me than the fact that this man actually thought it was a good idea to send his letter to the Times for publication. It was a fascinating window into the mindset of those whose sense of high-dollar entitlement and low concern for the impact of their risky, short-term profit schemes outside their own bonus goals had caused such immense and widespread damage. To him, $750,000 was the least he deserved for actions he still found no reason to fault. His view of normal had become so warped that he truly didn't see what he had done wrong. 

The same seems to have been true of the Northwest Airlines pilots who overshot their Minneapolis, Minnesota, destination by 150 miles because they were so engrossed in a personal computer scheduling task that they forgot to fly the airplane. Speaking to the press right after the incident, the first officer said, confidently, "It was not a serious event, from a safety issue."

Really? One hundred and forty-four passengers were aboard a plane being flown by two pilots who hadn't so much as looked at an instrument in over an hour (or they would have seen the alerts), or talked to a controller, and had no idea where they were, or what their fuel or any other status was, while blazing through airspace off flight plan, and therefore without permission and potentially into other aircraft flight paths, putting an entire national defense system on alert ... and it wasn't a serious event, from a safety perspective?

The FAA clearly saw it differently, revoking the pilots' licenses within days of the incident. But ... wow. How could the pilots themselves not understand the severity of the transgression?

The answer, I think, is the same in all three cases. It's something the pilots I flew with in Africa called "normalized deviance." In terms of bush flying in Africa, what that means is that a normal pilot, even with back-country training in the U.S., would consider a landing on a dirt airstrip that was half covered in water, deteriorating, crooked, and wedged in between ridge lines to be a very hazardous maneuver. But in Africa, most of the airstrips are like that. Most of the time. 

At first, new pilots in Africa approach that kind of strip with caution. But humans are amazingly adaptable creatures. After landing on runways like that every day for several months, that "deviant" condition becomes the norm. It no longer generates the hesitation or discomfort it once did. So what pilots consider a "high risk" landing becomes something even further out of the box. The pilots' view of what "normal" is becomes skewed ... with the end result that transport/cargo aircraft in Africa have an accident rate 13 times that of the rest of the world. 

It's similar to the "bubble" phenomenon people talk about with politicians: the skewing of "normal" perspectives and reactions by abnormal surroundings. To such an extent, in many cases, that those involved no longer even grasp that their view of "normal" has become warped, or at least detached from that of most other people. 

That doesn't excuse the behavior, of course. And not everyone, even in the same circumstances, surrenders all connection with their old sense of right, normal, fair, or safe. But the Northwest pilots had probably spent so much time letting the airplane fly itself that they no longer saw anything wrong with that. The A.I.G. vice-president had been overpaid and judged only on his own financial "kill" rate so long that he'd obviously lost sight of what a "normal" salary was, or any sense of responsibility for how his actions might be connected to real people or harm done in the world. And the relationship between Congress and lobbying firms has evidently grown so cozy over time that the idea of providing an unedited mouthpiece for industry PR departments, even if "only" in the Congressional Record, doesn't even seem to raise much of an eyebrow on Capitol Hill anymore. 

If that realization doesn't disturb us overmuch, perhaps it's because we're suffering from a kind of normalized deviance of our own, in terms of our expectations. And that, at least, should disturb us. 

(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)