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The Sniff Test

Stephen White

News of Brangelina’s
intention to divorce arriving on the same day as the critical acclaim given to the new Channel 4 drama National Treasure about celebrity sexual malpractice gave rise to a dinner table conversation about our capability to correctly read peoples’ underlying personality. We all recognise that in the febrile atmosphere inhabited by A, B, C, and Z listers the norms of society tend to be warped; they and we believe that they are more prone to accusations of bribery, corruption, to divorce and adultery. But in terms of the individual celebrity how good is our instinctive sniff-test. When we first hear bombshell news about a famous person is our reaction ‘Yes, not surprised, I knew that was a likely scenario’, or ‘No, I would never have thought them capable of that’.

We went through a short list of accused celebrities – Jimmy Savile (Yes), Rolf Harris (mixed), Francois Hollande (Yes), Dilma Rousseff (Yes), Hillary Clinton (Yes), Seb Blatter (Oh Yes), Seb Coe (No), Bill Cosby (mixed), Phil Spector (mixed), Tiger Woods (No), Cliff Richards (No).

Do celebrities try the sniff-test on themselves? Do they question any disconnect between their real personalities and their unorthodox behaviour.  Obviously not in many cases; we can see that they acted out of character apparently more easily than they see that themselves. The conversation moved on, perhaps somewhat randomly, to the ability some of these famous people have to deny everything when everyone else, based on their sniff-test opinion as well as factual evidence believe they are guilty. Are their denials based on defiance, or fear, or are they another manifestation of a personality disorder, perhaps a Walter Mitty delusional view of the world? Or is it a calculated strategy based on a risk analysis of their ability to get away with it.  Prosecutions of the obviously guilty often fail because witnesses die before the case gets to court, or jurors fail to agree or go sick, or due process turns out not to have been correctly followed. People with charisma and force of personality often persuade a suspicious world that despite lots of smoke there is no fire. After all, once guilt is admitted the game is over. Whilst it continues to be denied there is hope even in no-hope situations.

Which led to the question of no-hope politicians, and why they don’t give in. Sane people around the world do not believe that Donald Trump as President will make the USA a better society, or that Jeremy Corbyn has the leadership qualities to enable the deeply riven Labour party to win the next General Election. They fail our sniff-test, but more importantly they even fail the sniff-test of their own close colleagues – senior members of their respective parties! Yet in the face of all this negativity they ignore calls to change or stand down and blithely continue down the path of near certain disaster. Why?

It is because of the conjunction of two of these phenomena; firstly the inability of celebrity-types to apply the sniff-test to themselves and secondly their analysis that a future unexpected event might change the dynamic in their favour. Donald Trump’s standing in the opinion polls rallied when Hillary Clinton’s totally unexpected and therefore shocking pneumonia-induced stumble was broadcast and rebroadcast a million times 10 days ago. Jeremy Corbyn might reasonably believe that however much disarray his own party is in now, and probably will continue to be in by the time of the next scheduled General Election, the Conservative Party might well have torn itself apart arguing about the Brexit terms which the UK is able to negotiate with the EU, and the trade deals (or lack of them) negotiated with other countries. Which would leave Jeremy Corbyn electable as the harbinger of hope.

If you follow this logic as a negotiator you should never give in, no matter how remote the prospect of success is. The other side might well be wrong when they apply the sniff-test to you or your proposals. And the unexpected might make the impossible possible. 

Stephen White

Stephen White
More by Stephen White:
Cliff Edge
The Best Laid Plans
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