23 Years after the Hillsborough Stadium disaster, when 96 people were crushed to death, a government-commissioned Independent Panel has concluded that police failures contributed to the tragedy; more lives could have been saved; and after the event the South Yorkshire police mounted a concerted cover up, throwing blame on the fans. What can we learn about the underlying mind-set? And how does group pressure lead ordinary people to do wrong?

Talk on Good Morning Wales 14/9/2012 

The report into the Hillsborough deaths told us that the disaster was caused by a string of cock-ups followed by a conspiracy. There was carelessness about safety and failure to respond effectively. Then came the impulse to close ranks, protect colleagues and evade responsibility by lying, doctoring evidence and defaming the victims.

These revelations are reminiscent of what we’ve also recently learned about tabloid journalism and investment banking. In each case problems have grown from a cynical and collusive institutional culture. Certain actions, even illegal ones, seem to have become acceptable within the institution only to look very different when they’ve been exposed to public scrutiny. That points to an important ethical issue that affects us all: how group pressure leads ordinary and even respectable people to act in ways that are clearly wrong.

The human desire to belong seems to be inbuilt. We want to be liked by other members of the groups we’re in, whether that’s a group of friends, the local community or a profession. We want to fit in and, if possible, be respected and receive the rewards of success. Groups also shape our beliefs, our perspectives on life and our views of what’s right and wrong.  As a result we can come to think that something’s OK if it’s acceptable within our group. I suspect something like that happened in the South Yorkshire Police where ordinary people acted unethically to protect the group as a whole.

As a Buddhist it’s important to me to remember that moral responsibility lies with each individual. Yes, the culture we inhabit is bound to influence us, but I believe that developing as a person really means learning to think and act from your own values and convictions. Becoming an individual in that sense doesn’t mean rejecting what others think out of hand; but it does mean a willingness to question received wisdom and decide for yourself what’s right and true.

Sometimes, challenging group attitudes might mean abandoning success, money, comfort or a good a pension. So it’s easy to see how people find themselves going along with things they know are wrong, even when the injustice is on the scale of what happened after Hillsborough. Issues like that are rare in most of our lives, but the challenge of individuality is constant: seeing more fully what our values really are, and learning to act from them, whatever the group may say.