Corruption everywhere! But what does corruption mean? Its root is in ‘rupt’ meaning a breakdown as in ‘rupture’. So I take it to mean the breakdown of something that ought to be different. We use it appropriately when a person or an organisation which has power and privilege abuses the very purpose for which they have these advantages. There are many examples, some of which I list.
A government which makes legislation with the intention of gaining electoral advantage at the expense of the common good. MPs who do not respect their expense allowances and use them as an indirect source of income. Police who get their way by threats which their victims cannot evaluate.
The alleged corruption of international sports authorities, leading to the wealth of officials and the placing of events as a result of bribes. In many countries, not only in the Third World, general corruption runs through the whole system – and, being difficult to eradicate, becomes taken for granted. Samuel Pepys, as Secretary to the Admiralty, admitted to taking bribes – indeed it was seen as part of his emolument. He claimed that he never allowed this to affect his judgment – and no doubt believed himself.
Nearer to home we might think of supermarkets. They work hard to gain our trust, yet they are capable of raising prices through reducing the contents of familiar packages, and hoping that we won’t notice. Newspapers, often holier than thou, are not above distorting news stories in various ways in order to attract readers. And if you think they are not concerned about offending their big advertisers by selection and treatment of stories, you are an innocent abroad. Many newspapers pay their journalists lower salaries, but unofficially expect them to use their expense accounts freely. (These may be the same papers who accuse companies of paying insufficient corporation tax.) A friend of mine who was a senior executive in the newspaper business tried to stop the practice, Six months later he was out of a job. You would be surprised if I told you the name of the newspaper,
In the Catholic community we are only too well aware of clerical sexual corruption – from cardinals down to the lowest ranks. Here we have double corruption: first because the clergy are assumed to be virtuous by their rôle, and second because they use their power over the weak and defenceless. We remember the Latin tag corruptio optimi pessima – “the corruption of the best is the worst.”
But we cannot afford to deplore this widespread corruption without examining whether we may sometimes slide into corruption ourselves. Have we never smiled at someone in order to get a favour in return? Have we never bribed a child to change his or her behaviour? Have we never used our authority at work to gain our own advantage? Imagine a case where our nephew is applying for a popular job, and we find that the interviewer happens to be a friend. Might we just mention our nephew to him – in the hope that he will have corrupt advantage over the other applicants?
It seems to be a feature of corruption that it is very much easier to spot it in others than it is to spot it in ourselves.