If institutions were persons, we would recognize that they are all too human in their ability to discount warnings of impending disaster. Consider:
• Both the Pentagon and Congress had fragmentary reports of abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison.
• FBI agents, including John O’Neil, had obtained information and were assembling a story that would have predicted attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
• The American Catholic church failed to respond to warnings issued in 1985 that priestly pedophilia would create grave problems.
Institutionalized denial is an ancient problem. In biblical times the prophets repeatedly warned the nation of Israel to return to its ways, lest it suffer a military defeat. In Greek mythology, Cassandra suffered the fate of warning of impeding disasters – only to find that no one believed her.
This pattern is found in universities as well. Echoing the Vietnam era, University of Colorado officials found that the athletic department maintained “plausible deniability” about the use of sex, alcohol and drugs to recruit football players.
Corporations frequently discount warnings. Dartmouth business professor Sidney Finkelstein wrote about it in Why Smart Executives Fail and What You can Learn from their Mistakes. He suggests that this blindness to failure and deafness to warnings results from “an insulated culture that systematically excludes any information that could contradict its reigning picture of reality”. If these corporations were persons, we would say they were in denial.
The analogy isn’t far-fetched. In 1911 the Supreme Court found that a corporation is a legal person. Management literature often discusses terms such as corporate culture, command climate, and corporate personality. Visiting high school students quickly recognize that Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia have vastly different characters.
Confronting denial is difficult enough when an individual person is involved. Confronting an institution is more perilous. Maybe we should paraphrase Mt. 13:57 to read “A prophet is without honor in his own” company, agency or church.
If institutions were persons in recovery, they would acknowledge that they were in denial and that they were created by a higher power. They would rededicate themselves to accomplishing the purpose for which they were created.
Most often denial patterns are broken only after a severe and public failure. This can happen. NASA openly acknowledged that it's dysfunctional culture contributed as much as any technical error to the loss of the Columbia Shuttle and its astronauts. US Army Major General Taguba openly admitted to congress that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were a result of leadership failure.
In today’s secularized media and academic world, many will object. While they might accept the concept of institutionalized denial, they will find the analogy to recovery unacceptable. Since it implicitly mentions the “G-word”, it is politically incorrect and would be declared an unconstitutional violation the separation of church and state.
It was not so at the beginning of our republic. In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson recognized: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men”.
James Madison provided a structure that made it possible for citizens to insure that governments fulfill their proper functions. The tools: a divided government, freedom of press and religion are still available to us. Citizens must continue to be vigilant. Benjamin Franklin said it best: when asked "what kind of government we have" he replied “A republic, if you can keep it”.