This page considers questions
about 'character' and identity.
It covers -
complements the discussion of spent convictions, personal
credit rating and vetting.
Robert Musil in The Man Without Qualities commented
It is always wrong to explain the phenomena of a country
by the character of its inhabitants. For the inhabitant
of a country has at least nine characters: a professional
one, a civic one, a class one, a geographical one, a
sex one, a conscious, and unconscious and perhaps even
too a private one; he combines them all in himself,
but they dissolve him, and he is really nothing but
a little channel washed out by all these trickling streams,
which flow into it and drain out again in order to join
other little streams filling another channel.
more succinctly wrote that "a man's character is
his destiny". That thought has been assimilated by
law, government, commerce and other relationships over
the past two millennia, with institutions and individuals
sorting people (a specific person or a class of people)
on the basis of 'character'.
What is character? How is it identified?
One theme throughout history is that character is innate,
something that is 'bred in the bone' and often beyond
the individual's volition - not determined by upbringing
or association ('nature' overrides 'nurture') and identifiable
through physical attributes (most egregiously through
ethnicity or gender).
The past two centuries have thus seen a variety of pseudo-scientific
mechanisms such as phrenology, 'blood type psychology',
physiognomy, graphology and astrology that purport to
allow a novice or a expert to reliably identify individuals
who have committed offences or will commit offences in
future, irrespective of efforts by those individuals to
disguise their true nature from themselves or from other
people. Some of those mechanisms are discussed in more
Another theme has been that future behaviour reflects
past action, with offences of varying seriousness allowing
an impartial and effective forecast of what people will
do in the long term (particularly if given an opportunity).
That assessment has been reflected in debate about the
expungement of 'spent
convictions', restrictions on public access to court
records and the development of public offender
It has also been reflected in the growth of consumer credit
profiling and large-scale consumer databases that
are intended to provide users with accurate information
about the likelihood of borrowers defaulting on credit
card or other finance and about whether marketing should
be targeted at particular individuals or demographics.
From a marketing perspective you are what you eat, what
you buy, what you watch and where you go (with geospatial
privacy and online search
privacy thus emerging as hot issues).
A third theme is that character is signalled by association:
where you come from, who are your relatives, who you associate
with (in person or through email, the post and other media).
'Bad character' - sufficient to deny you admission as
an Australian lawyer or appointment to some government
positions - may be conclusively demonstrated by "hanging
around with the wrong sort of people".
fit and proper persons
Australian law, like that of Canada, New Zealand and the
UK, embodies notions of 'good character' (typically expressed
as being a "fit & proper person") to gain
and retain particular positions. Those positions include
as a lawyer
of a broadcasting network
of a casino or other gambling venue/service
of a firearms licence.
of 'good character' may also be a basis for refusal of
a visa or citizenship.
fitness relates to the individual's character, rather
than technical skills. It does not relate to the person's
health or physical attributes (eg blindness or paralegia).
An individual might thus have scored brilliantly in law
exams but been refused admission to the legal profession
because of a history of offering bribes to police. A surgeon
might possess the requisite dexterity and knowledge of
anatomy but be unfit because of a cavalier for patient
All cultures have placed their faith in mechanisms that
supposedly enable lay people or specialists to accurately
detect 'bad character' - which may be inchoate rather
than expressed through past misbehaviour - and forecast
future problems. That forecasting has been recurrently
claimed to allow organisations and individuals to prevent
a range of ills or to minimise risk, through for example
exclusion of the 'bad seed' or closer supervision of those
people who are claimed to have undesirable characteristics.
The preceding pages of this guide indicate that most mechanisms
are readily subverted or in practice ignored by gatekeepers
faced with individuals who do not match their preconceptions.
One example is the recurrent vetting failures evident
in fraudulent resumes highlighted earlier
in this guide.
Many mechanisms in retrospect can be seen as egregiously
unfair or as ludicrous. It is interesting, however, that
some are still embodied in testing by corporate recruiters
and in presumptions underlying security policies used
by public/private sector organisations.
In 2008 for example many Australians would be hesitant
to publicly embrace the ideas that underlay hysteria such
as the 'lavender scares' of the 1920s and 1950s (recognising
that same sex partner does not equal a compulsion to pass
secrets to the Comintern) and would be disquieted by the
discreet - and not so discreet - antisemitism apparent
in recruitment to the judicature and leading financial
institutions through much of the past century. It is clear
however that preconceptions about character and capacity
affect many dealings with Indigenous people and people
from the Middle East.
What mechanisms have people used?
One, bizarrely enjoying something of a revival among recruiters,
is graphology - the
analysis of handwriting as a supposedly impartial and
scientifically valid tool for determining whether candidates
have committed offences in the past or are likely to exhibit
stigmatised behaviour (including alcoholism, theft and
voting for the wrong political party) in future.
That revival has not been matched by overt enthusiasm
for phrenology (determining
character and thereby forecasting future behaviour by
examining the bumps on an individual's skull). Irrespective
of the gross lack of scientific basis for claims by past
and contemporary enthusiasts, phrenology appears to have
subsided into the realm populated by quack medicines,
wacko conspiracy theories and notions that astrology
is a reliable tool for discernment of a job applicant's
Notions that character - and aptitudes such as mathematical
skills - can be reliably identified through an individual's
appearance have proven to be more resilient, with physiognomy
surviving because it is presented as 'common sense' or
as 'the wisdom of the crowd' (the same crowd that in the
past was committed to the 'common sense' that the atmosphere
was polluted by women in black on broomsticks).
Others have relied on pseudo-scientific technologies such
as the polygraph. Some enthusiasts are currently mooting
reliance on magnetic resonance imaging to detect liars,
thieves and potential serial killers - albeit undeterred
by research that tends to confuse blue-collar sociopaths
(dangerous and to be imprisoned, potentially before they
re-enact the Texas Chainsaw Massacre) with corporate sociopaths
(charming, intelligent, glib, found on the 47th floor
in Pitt Street or Collins Street). Some are gaining attention
for claims that facial geometry may be a useful predictor
of aggression - an echo of past folk wisdom about beady
eyes, large noses and five o'clock shadows (aka don't
employ the Beagle Boys, Richard Nixon or Joe McCarthy).
One perspective is provided in a 2008 paper on profiling
financial criminals (PDF).
For 'fitness' and character tests see Susan Rimmer's succinct
2008 'Character as Destiny: The dangers of character tests
in Commonwealth law' (PDF).
A supplementary note
offers detailed pointers to literature regarding pseudo-sciences
such as phrenology, physiognomy, blood type psychology
They include About Face: German Physiognomic Thought
from Lavater to Auschwitz (Detroit: Wayne State Uni
Press 2004) by Richard Gray, 'The Rise and Fall of Phrenology
in Australia' by John Thearle in 27(3) Australian
and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry (1993) 518-525,
'The murderous Dutch fiddler: Criminology, history and
the problem of phrenology' by Nicole Rafter in 9(1) Theoretical
Criminology (2005) 65-96, 'The Legal Implications
of Graphology' by Julie Spohn in 75(3) Washington
University Law Quarterly (1997) 1307-1334 and 'Illusory
Correlations in Graphological Inference' by Roy King &
Derek Koehler in 6(4) Journal of Experimental Psychology
Applied (2000) 336-348.
Works on the polygraph are highlighted in the discussion
of vetting. Points of entry to the literature include
'A Social History of Untruth: Lie Detection and Trust
in Twentieth-Century America' by Ken Alder in 80 Representations
(2002) 1-33 and A Tremor in the Blood: Uses and Abuses
of the Lie Detector (New York: McGraw-Hill 1981)
by David Lykken.
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