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The Problem with Personification in Politics

Written By: - Date published: 7:00 am, April 19th, 2021 - 12 comments
Categories: activism, Deep stuff, democratic participation, education, politicans, Politics, public services - Tags: , ,

From time to time, commenters on this site make the mistake to ascribe a mind and opinion to the site. Firstly, this shows that they have not read the Policy. Secondly, it shows how their clouded thinking leads to wrong conclusions and ineffective comments.

Personification happens all the time. We use metaphorical expressions in our daily language that appear to ascribe human traits to non-human objects. It helps us to relate to these and get some kind of handle on them when they are otherwise too tricky to comprehend fully.

However, in genuine debate, particularly political debate, personification can lead you down the garden path. For example, an oft-made mistake is to personify institutions and organisations such as Ministries. These are complex beasts with mysterious and almost mythical inner workings that ordinary folk like us do not easily recognise and understand; they are quite unfamiliar to us despite the fact that some are apparently omnipresent, in the 24-hour news cycle, at least.

It becomes problematic when we extend these personifications to actual people whom we consider to be ‘at the helm’, e.g. heads of Ministries. As the saying goes, the fish rots from the head, which usually means that the symbolic Ministerial figurehead, i.e. the Minister, is responsible for all ills, perceived or real, allegedly coming from or caused by that Ministry. What’s more, all the human traits associated with the personified Ministry, are extrapolated and projected upon the head leading that Ministry. An alleged culture of or at a Ministry is not a pathological state of mind of a real person. It just does not work that way although it is so easy (and lazy!) to think it is so.

But it goes even further. Sometimes, actually quite often, people use anthropomorphisms, which is to mean that they ascribe human behaviour to Ministries, for example. They may allege that Government, or the State, through their Ministries and ‘agents’, is ‘out to get you’, whatever that means. Ministers and Prime Ministers are said to ‘have blood on their hands’, in some fatal cases.

It is understandable and possibly even true that some people are ‘out there to get you’. Some people may indeed wish you ill or worse. Generally, you know who they are and why they think of you in a certain way; they are real people with whom you have a personal history.

This, however, does not apply to Ministries, no matter how much you personify these. To them, you are just a number, a nameless face; they would not know you from a bar of soap. For the simple fact is that Ministries are not real persons. There is no “they” or “them” as such, nor are Ministries some kind of Borg Collective in which all the public servants are linked in and to a hive mind called ‘the Ministry’ notwithstanding the Beehive.

First personifying Ministries, for example, and then criticising and even attacking them as if they are your personal enemy and a direct and genuine threat to your existence is not uncommon, sadly. It feels real, because our little human brains cannot tell the difference between a real person and an imaginary one, between a real threat and an imaginary one. This might explain the venom and vitriol aimed at Ministers – some more than others – for example, when something goes wrong; inevitably, something always goes ‘wrong’. Because not only are they held personally responsible but also because it becomes personal because we make it personal, and thus (!) it feels personal. Some politicians even receive death threats and politicians have actually been killed by deranged folk overseas.

The paradox of politics appears to be that engagement increases when people feel more passionate about certain things that they do not necessarily consider political or as politics (cue Climate Change or Covid-19). It further increases when politics become polarised and divided. People start to take sides, become partisan, tribal and personal. The result is othering and alienation of our fellow human beings with whom we share our country and society. All this feeds back into each other, of course; political ‘engagement’ and ‘activism’ is a double-edged sword and the storming of Capitol Hill is a case-in-point.

We cannot and should not expect enlightened politicians, our representatives, to rise from our midst if we ourselves are not enlightened – we indeed do elect the Government that we deserve. If this were to happen, we would ignore them at best or demonise and crucify them at worst. A correct knowledge and understanding of the nature of complex things are and how complex political systems and processes work will go a long way to combat our personal and collective ignorance about the democratic process and our place in it and how to evolve it in a meaningful, wise & intelligent, and sustainable way. If we all do our bit, if we lift all boats, we may see the tide rise from status quo and BAU to a better life for all in our society. Until then, we will bicker, whinge, criticise ineffectively, misdirect blame, accuse, attack, and generally go around in circles.

12 comments on “The Problem with Personification in Politics ”

  1. Pat 1

    Personification or revolving door?


    Ministries may indeed be disinterested of us as individuals but the leaders are not necessarily disinterested in themselves as individuals.

    Cartels are made up of individuals.

  2. Rosemary McDonald 2

    These Ministries are run by real people, persons, personalities.

    In the case of the ministries of Health and Social Development the attitudes and actions of these persons can have a profound impact on the citizens whose existence is dependent on the service they receive from these ministries.

    These public servants have a choice. They can act as if their clients are fellow human beings and citizens who deserve respect and compassion (as it would be reasonable to expect from both Health and Social Development ) or they can behave like heartless arseholes.

    Monthly quotas were imposed at the Ministry of Social Development to prosecute beneficiaries, an inquest into the death of a woman accused of benefit fraud has heard.

    "We had to get one prosecution per month. We had to get $30,000 of debt to be recovered per month," a former MSD investigator told the inquest into the death of Wendy Shoebridge. "Four cases had to be cleared per month."

    Shoebridge, a 41-year-old mother, was found dead in Lower Hutt on April 3, 2011.

    The day before, she opened a letter saying she was to be referred for prosecution over an alleged $22,000 benefit fraud. After her death, that amount fell to about $5500.

    It shouldn't make any difference which flag flies over the Beehive…the persons working for these particular Ministries should always do their work with a profound understanding of the power they wield over those most vulnerable.

    On further consideration, and in my experience, perhaps they do.

  3. Stuart Munro 3

    One of the features of neoliberalism, has been a move within the civil service, and its privatized former services, away from public service, and towards bureaucratic and quasi-corporate convenience.

    Thus we have a state housing entity that doesn't seem very keen on housing people, health services that are scandal ridden and have uneven performances, an MPI that maintains a defunct fisheries quota model and whatever noxious entity is responsible for mass low-quality migration is conducting mass exploitable low-quality migration, and a "conservation" department whose version of conservation is mass poisoning campaigns, to name a few.

    As the recipients of these uniformly poor and overbearing and ineffectual services, I'm not sure why the public should not characterize them as self-serving vermin, and satirize them at every opportunity. There is certainly no pressure for reform to be had from pretending that they are either adequate or motivated by the public interest.

    • greywarshark 3.1

      And further on Stuart Munro's points, there is recognition by academics and those studying politics and its policies, that politicians can draw up laws but the way that bureaucrats interpret them, deliver them, subvert them, even dismiss or defy them, can have a diminishing effect on benefits they were supposed to deliver.

      A culture can grow in a department or agency that exerts a greater power amongst its denizens, than attempts by politicians to rectify or progress better, a situation that needs change. There is a rationale for bad performance in functionaries of some department used by politicians, that it is an 'operational matter not governance' as an excuse for them to withdraw from overview or attempt to direct, and call civil servants to account.

      It can be argued that there is a 'personality' behind those handling operational matters, also politicians. The matter could be related to the idea of the 'shadow' personality of individuals, and also to multiple individuals. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadow_(psychology).

      Another thing, passing a law will register as a conclusion or solution to a problem in people's minds. They will consider a matter to be dealt with expecting actions that follow its principles as well as 'the letter of the law'. But the actions of functionaries can for a while continue as before and become more unsatisfactory or extreme as a loophole is found or some wording is deliberately misunderstood. This continues until some swingeing behaviour occurs and someone calls authority to account and shows a pattern of bad faith and bad behaviour, and that each case can't be dismissed as a one-off, an anomaly. So a bad-faith 'personality' could be said to have hegemonic power in that department or agency.

  4. Anne 4

    The following is not strictly speaking on the subject matter but I think is a good corollary to it. I refer to the existence of psychopathological individuals in high places within society:

    In his 2011 Great British Psychopath Survey he concluded that the ten professions that have the highest proportion of psychopaths are:

    1. CEOs
    2. Lawyers
    3. Media people (TV and radio)
    4. Sales people
    5. Surgeons
    6. Journalists
    7. Police officers
    8. Clergy
    9. Chefs
    10. Civil servants

    Examples of detrimental effects of a psychopathic boss is increased bullying, conflict, stress, staff turnover, absenteeism and reduction in productivity and in social responsibility.


    All of them play a significant role in the way the above institutions and entities are viewed and many of us have had first hand experience often with highly distressing consequences.

    I concur with Stuart Munro that the advent of neoliberalism has had a detrimental effect on our Public Services and their SOE counterparts in particular.

    A lack of understanding how ministries operate is only part of the problem – albeit and important part.

    • Descendant Of Smith 4.1

      I tend to disagree a little with the premise that Ministers aren't accountable/responsible for their direct involvement in a department or ministry.

      Ministers put things in Chief Executive contracts which then drive particular focuses in departments. Whether this be a positive or negative measure is a moot point. These things will drive certain approaches and behaviours which may or may not be public. This may be targets, this may be the type of people recruited/promoted/demoted, this may be the "we can do more" attitude by CE's wanting to impress the Minister.

      As management theory is essentially built on distrust of the level below you then the aspects in the contract can escalate as they go down the chain as over arching requirements.

      This has been so since the CE's moved from the SSC to the Minister. There is some good research and evaluation around of the reforms both here and overseas – Management by Objectives and so on. I'm starting to study this more as part of my advocacy work to try and understand why we end up with an end point of public servants doing bad things – remember it wasn't Trump separating the children, nor Hitler rounding up people for the gas chamber. It was public servants.


      • Anne 4.1.1

        I'm starting to study this more as part of my advocacy work to try and understand why we end up with an end point of public servants doing bad things – …

        I was a public servant for 24 years in a small government department whose impact on every aspect of a person's life was near total. We lived and worked by the Public Service manual of regulations… everyone knew what was expected of them and by and large our work places were harmonious places.

        It all came to a sudden end and without warning in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the advent of the neoliberal market-place political philosophy. The department was taken over by a bunch of out-of-town cowboys who had little to no knowledge of the specialised work that we did. Rules which had previously governed the smooth running of the department were abandoned. Field offices were closed and more than half the staff lost their jobs.

        We're cutting staff numbers and slimming down in the interest of efficiency – they said. It was rubbish. They were building a little fiefdom for themselves where they had all encompassing power and control over everyone else.

        It didn't last. Within five years the department nearly sank between the waves, but was fortunately resurrected in the form of an SOE and placed in the management of people with a proper understanding of the department's role and responsibilities.

        That public entity had a happy ending but others were not so lucky.

        I hope that at least in part helps to answer your question DOS.

  5. greywarshark 5

    Was Mao suggesting that a hegemonic personality was growing amongst government personnel when he said this?

    A dangerous tendency has shown itself of late among many of our personnel – an unwillingness to share the joys and hardships of the masses, a concern for personal fame and gain. This is very bad. One way of overcoming it is to simplify our organisations in the course of our campaign to increase production and practise economy, and to transfer cadres to lower levels so that a considerable number will return to productive work.
    (On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People – February 27, 1967 – 1st pocket ed., p.71)

    We seem to have some similar problems to those he posited.

    • Tiger Mountain 5.1

      to paraphrase Mao “Revolutionaries should move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea”…

      Note; Mao did not say petit bourgeois, right opportunists and neo liberal Labour MPs should do that…

  6. AB 6

    The tendency to personify arises at least in part from the impoverishment of our notion of 'responsibility'. Three and a bit decades of the neolib project have left us with the idea that all responsibility is personal – other types (collective, moral) have sort of evaporated. This simplification has served the neolib project well – if things are going badly for you, it's because you have shown deficient levels of personal responsibility.

    This soon metastasises into an ingrained belief that if anything goes a bit awry anywhere – someone has stuffed up. You can hear it in Suzuie Ferguson's tone on RNZ, as she fearlessly (in her own mind) questions her guests, digging deep to expose the trangressor somewhere in the hierarchy who must be sacked forthwith. It's all sort of dumb and unreal. We need to be re-grounded in the idea that there is an agreed collective intent of the systems we create – and that everything is (or should be) a sort of movement in the direction of that intent, like a river with fast and slow currents, frustrating back eddies and dead-end backwaters.

  7. MSD, MBIE, etc are very complex *systems* maintained by public service minions.


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