Plebgate – a Clash of Mythologies

Plebgate Home Affairs Select Committee

Plebgate is a scandal that began with a politician (Andrew Mitchell) swearing at a police officer and having to resign.  It then turned into the police investigating the honesty and integrity of its own officers (“plodgate”).  On Wednesday (23/10/13), the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) showed that there is more confusion between fact and fiction in this story than in a good Dan Brown novel.  For example:

  • Three Chief Constables apologised for their officers’ actions – but the officers refused to do so.
  • The officers claimed they had been accurate, but most others agreed they had misled.
  • The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), Senior Investigating Officer (SIO), and Chief Constables differed as to the charges that should be laid against the officers.
  • The SIO disagreed with his own report, which he had signed as author.
  • The way the SIO finalised the report’s conclusions was probably illegal.
  • The Chief Constables disagree as to whether the report’s conclusions need to be reviewed.

How does mythology help explain this fog of confusion?

A Brief Introduction to Modern Mythology

Jung’s analytical psychology looks at the interactions between people at two levels – a conscious level (i.e. what the individuals think or intend) and an unconscious level (the influences on their thoughts and behaviour of which they are unaware).  Mythology brings the two levels together.  Mythology is not merely old Greek stories or religious beliefs, but an important part of everyone’s worldview that helps shape the way we think and believe.  Mythology is the product of our imaginations, i.e. it comes from the unconscious, and it offers explanation to our conscious minds of that which is beyond direct observation or experience.

Karl Popper used this modern view of mythology in his philosophy of science.  Scientists advance scientific knowledge by mythologising about the way the world works and then putting those mythologies to the test.  According to Popper, we can’t prove that a mythology is true, only that it is false.  Therefore, all mythologies (models, theories, conjectures, etc.) remain hypothetical to some degree.

C.G. Jung also viewed science as mythology, along with psychology and religion – though he tended to differentiate mythologies not as true or false (as per Popper) but as being treated symbolically or literally.  Popper and Jung both suggest we should always remain open to new or improved mythologies that provide better explanations for what we observe and experience.

The Role of Mythology in Plebgate

When news first broke of an incident in Downing Street involving Andrew Mitchell and the police, many individuals and groups mythologised as to what had happened and then regarded that mythology as literal truth.  For example, a contemporaneous BBC report shows that many commentators took it for granted that Mitchell had called the police “plebs” and argued that he should have resigned earlier.

The clash of mythologies between politicians, police and the IPCC was evident at the HASC inquiry on Wednesday – even in simple matters such as the number of reports that had been produced.  A senior police officer had investigated the incident, but the three main groups of witnesses had conflicting views as to what had happened:

  • The officers under investigation believed the SIO had produced one report, which had exonerated them.
  • The IPCC believed there were two reports – an initial one with two contradictory conclusions, and a second (final) one exonerating the officers
  • The Chief Constables also believed there were two reports – an initial one with no conclusions, and the final one.

This confusion arose because each group had mythologised (imagined) a different story as to how the report was produced and how the conclusions were finalised.

Practical Implications

For the committee, the only way these conflicting mythologies can be resolved is by further mythologising.  That is, they have to produce a new explanation (i.e. mythology) that accounts for all of the stories that have been given to them.  The committee started this process during the televised inquiry – e.g. in identifying at least 3 reports (confirmed by the SIO).  This is how knowledge advances in Popper’s philosophy of science – one mythologises in order to resolve problems and tests/refines that mythology through critical discussion or experiment.

Mythologising is a part of daily life.  For example, when you take your car to the garage to be fixed, you mythologise about what the mechanic is doing when he has the car.  You can test that mythology to some degree when you collect the car – e.g. is the problem fixed?  But you can never be 100% certain what the mechanic has actually done with the car.

Mythology also plays a big part in relationships.  It can help you empathise, if you can discover the stories other people privately and unconsciously tell themselves.  Also, in Jung’s view, all truth beyond direct experience is mythological.  Recognising this can help to reduce conflict between religions, and between religion and science.

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