05 November 2018

Why we have so many Royal Commissions and what they tell us about our Future

In 1886 Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote the classic horror story “The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” In the story, the good Doctor Henry Jekyll becomes depressed with his life, feeling increasingly torn between his respectable self and a dark inner man lurking within. Dr Jekyll said “With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two…. It was in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.

So, the doctor formulates a potion that, with a dose, will separate out his two natures, giving birth to his alter ego, Edward Hyde - a contorted life, toxic and utterly selfish. With a second dose of the potion, the good doctor would re-emerge. But as time goes by Mr Hyde begins to manifest unassisted and Dr Jekyll begins to realise his evil self was far more wicked and overpowering than he imagined 

– ‘I knew myself tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil’.

That ‘primitive duality’, is not just the stuff of fiction, is it? No, this is our story. We are a torn creation. We like to think ourselves basically good. We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions. But in truth are we really any different?

Over the past 6 years we’ve witnessed a steady stream of Royal Commissions in our nation, which to me speak as much about human nature as they do about the specific matters. We’ve had the Royal Commission into:
  • Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2013–2017), 
  • Home Insulation Program (2013–2014), 
  • Trade Union Governance and Corruption (2014–2015), 
  • Child Protection and Youth Detention Systems in the NT (2016–2017), 
  • Misconduct in the Banking, and Financial Services Industry (2017–present), 
  • Aged Care Quality and Safety (2018-Present), 
  • And back in the 90’s two significant ones I recall were the commissions into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the NSW Police Force. 
What do these commissions say about us? Perhaps they reveal two things:

The obvious revelation is that Mr Hyde is alive and well. Each commission illustrates that, left unchecked, all people are extremely vulnerable to the temptation of power and privilege. Power and its selfish pursuit corrupt even the most trusted people in our community; like police, clergy and carers. And even more disturbingly, it is usually the most marginalised, powerless people that are the victims - be that indigenous youths, children or as the latest royal commission is revealing, the elderly.

At their core, Royal Commissions are places where people without a voice get to have one. Every story echoes the same sorry reality that people (and institutions) typically put personal gain over social concern, disregarding that golden rule to ‘do to others as you would have them do to you.’ People can be guilty of great cruelty and self interest. But there is more here because the 'guilty' aren’t just 'them' - the fat cat bankers, sexually repressed priests and corrupt public servants we love to hate. If there was a royal commission into any of our lives, I wonder, would anyone be blameless and proud of the findings? I wouldn't.

But the other revelation is that Dr Jekyll is not dead yet. Our commissions thankfully reveal that deep down we know we can be more than Mr Hyde. That we fundamentally desire a just society and we have reasonably consistent expectations on how humans should treat each other. And when either don’t happen, eventually, like property prices, a correction is inevitable because anything left unchecked is unsustainable. It seems we all have an unconscious vision for another kind of world – a world of justice, equity and peace which sometimes needs to be fought for.

This was repeatedly expressed at the recent Invictus Games in Sydney. A notable example was when wheelchair tennis player Paul Guest was preparing to serve and an approaching helicopter triggered his PTSD, freezing this already paralysed man pre-serve. His Dutch playing partner Edwin Vermetten rolled over to his partner, looked him in the eyes and led him in song – two old warriors fumbling a rendition of the song Let it Go from the film children's film Frozen. It was a remarkable moment of redemption and kindness expressed by two brave yet battered men. Invictus was a celebration of men and women overcoming the wounds inflicted on them, and I don’t doubt, the wounds they inflicted on others. There is such a glory amid the darkness of the human soul.

Which is why Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is so terrifying, because, in the end, Edward Hyde wins. There is no redemption, evil triumphs, hope is lost. And something within us says that can’t be how the story ends - but what if it does? If history is any indication of our future, we are already scripting tomorrows Royal Commissions and conflicts.

Three years before Robert Lewis Stevenson’s book was published, a philosopher named Fredrick Nietzsche had a different vision of our future. He famously declared 'God is dead', believing that we as a species would evolve beyond our petty need for God and into a superior form of humanity, the Ubermensch (yes the inspiration for Superman). This new breed would, in the void of God, be free to create new values, aspirations and a supreme expression of life on earth. It sounded like a glorious vision of the future…. but some of these ideas then directly fuelled the bloodiest century in history. So much for social evolution and utopia!

Is it our destiny to remain lost in what Dr Jekyll, and indeed the Apostle Paul called being ‘sold a slave to my original evil?’ What if despite our glimpses of glory, we are a species doomed to self-destruction? It kind of seems that way.

The apostle Paul in a letter to the first church in Rome (ch7.24) would write ‘What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?’ Paul knew that our own self-actualising efforts were grossly inadequate to offer any hope of salvation from this slavery to evil. Immediately he points to the cross and says ‘Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

I don’t know how you take that. Maybe in your mind it’s just a cop out, a spiritual abstraction or fairy tales. Sure, you can write God out of the story but given that every humanistic attempt to liberate us from our battle with evil ends up in another form of it, perhaps we do in fact need to look beyond us for another future?

Perhaps our future lies in a Jesus who not only demonstrated how to live a powerful life without abusing power, but who, in love, willingly wears the consequences of our corruption, so that every act of injustice can be met with an ultimate justice and an alternate future.

I think that is a far more hopeful, coherent vision of the future, and good news in a world where Royal Commissions are sadly becoming commonplace.