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section heading icon     character

This page considers
questions about 'character' and identity.

It covers -

It complements the discussion of spent convictions, personal credit rating and vetting.

section marker     introduction

Robert Musil in The Man Without Qualities commented that

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.

Heraclitus 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 detail here.

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 registers.

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".

section marker     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 -

  • practice as a lawyer
  • control of a broadcasting network
  • operation of a casino or other gambling venue/service
  • possession of a firearms licence.

Lack of 'good character' may also be a basis for refusal of a visa or citizenship.

The 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 suffering.

section marker     detection

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 character.

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).

section marker     studies

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 and graphology.

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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version of November 2008
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