When a crisis strikes it’s very natural to try and hide behind some sort of a defensive statement. Yet that statement needs to be meaningful and not just a fashionable cliché posing as a moral fig-leaf.
“This is not who we are” has become the latest go-to defence in the face of a reputational crisis, and it really needs to be retired. At best it could be a sincere statement of hopeful self-delusion. At worst it’s simply designed to avoid any real contrition (like that other old favourite “Mistakes were made”).
When video surfaced recently of an Indigenous teenager lying unresponsive on the ground outside the emergency department at St Vincent’s hospital in Sydney, with staff reportedly refusing to help, CEO Angela Nolan said: “This is not who we are and not what we are about at St Vincent’s”.
Similarly the Australian Trucking Association said “This is not who we are” when a Victorian truck driver videoed himself taking what appeared to be drugs in the cab of his vehicle. So did the Australian Anti-Defamation Commission in August after racist taunts were hurled at rugby league players. And so too did the Uniting Church regarding revelations at last year’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
The same unhelpful phrase seems to be particularly popular in the United States. Countless politicians, commentators and celebrities in the Age of Trump have told us “This is not who we are” in relation, for example, to reports of looting during protests, or locking children in cages on the border, or unprovoked police killings, or white supremacists.
When African-Americans at a GM plant in Toledo Ohio complained last year about widespread racism in the workplace – where nooses and “white only” signs were hung – the company’s VP of North American manufacturing tweeted; “We have zero tolerance for discrimination – this is not who we are”. Yet nine employees are suing the company for “allowing an underlying atmosphere of violent racial hate and bullying”.
And, in an earlier incident, when fraternity boys at Oklahoma State University were filmed singing racist chants on a bus trip, the university President and national Sigma Alpha Epsilon both said “This is not who we are” – despite former SAE brothers coming forward to say this was “par for the course” in the Midwest and South.
As one American legal news site recently wrote in a headline: “This is not who we are – said someone with no knowledge of U.S. history.” Or as Guardian columnist Tim Dowling suggests: “This is not who we are is American for ‘This is sort of who we are’.”
Indeed, Chicago Bears coach Matt Nagy even tried using this explanation after his team’s loss to the Green Bay Packers at the start of last season.
There are rare occasions when a politician uses the phrase and actually means it. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern was clearly speaking for the nation after the Christchurch mosque mass-shooting in March last year, which saw 51 killed and 40 injured. “This is an act that has absolutely no place in New Zealand – this is not who we are.”
However, the same could hardly be said for Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison when he declared the panic purchase of toilet rolls and hoarding of groceries during COVID-19 was “un-Australian”. He added: “This is not who we are as a people.” Unfortunately, supermarket shelves stripped bare across the country and video of shoppers fighting over scarce supplies were stark evidence of how wrong he was.
So next time a politician or crisis manager is tempted to say “This is not who we are” perhaps try “This is not who we want to be” or “This is not who we are going to be” or “This is not who we aspire to be.” Maybe then just a little credibility can be restored.