The lesson of Boris Johnson: apologizing, moralizing, and finger-pointing

See update for July 7, 2022, at end of post.

The thing about apologies is that they should be genuine. And to be genuine, they should mean a commitment not to repeat the mistakes that have led to the apologies.

By such criteria, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s apologies have not been genuine, and a whole bunch of Tories are pissed.[1] But all this is not quite as simple as Johnson’s ego.

Johnson should resign, of course, but like many elites, he confuses his own self-interest with that of a larger group, be it a company, a political party, a nation, or, in this case, the latter two. As I explained in my dissertation, all politicians (and corporate managers) are, to some degree, functional conservatives, and it is, after all, the defining characteristic of functional conservatism that one must seek to preserve and expand one’s privileges and powers over others; this is their interest in protecting the status quo and why fundamental change cannot occur even in response to existential crises.[2] For Johnson, all this makes the step, resignation, that nearly everyone now recognizes he should take,[3] inconceivable.

We see here the foundational dilemma of an authoritarian system of social organization: Those who lead, who exercise authority over others, who regulate our conduct, should be worthy of doing so. To be worthy of doing so, they should be moral and ethical people, certainly no less so than the people they lead—us.

But because there is so much to gain from a position of power over others, there is competition for any such position. That competition will not necessarily or even often be won by moral or ethical means by moral or ethical people. Rather, the system rewards and encourages psychopaths,[4] like Vladimir Putin. It rewards and encourages grifters, like Johnson, like Donald Trump.

But worse than that, because grifting and psychopathy are so very rewarded, they become values to emulate. They filter down to the people as a whole. As a species, we have now been trained to grift, to psychopathy, for five to fifteen thousand years, since we embraced a centralized system of authority in the neolithic. It is not just that so many of us can no longer imagine another system of social organization,[5] but that so few of us are any better than our leaders. They are monsters. We are monsters.[6]

Repeatedly, we have committed genocide. It is too easy to blame the likes of Adolf Hitler for such atrocities: Ordinary people carried them out. Repeatedly, we have committed war crimes—as if war itself was not a crime: It is far too easy to blame the likes of Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush for these crimes: Ordinary soldiers carried them out.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, we demonstrated a refusal of concern for each other: Individual inducements, which we called “freedom,” were by far more pressing than any concern that we might spread the disease.[7] And the very thought that we might have to change our intrinsically unsustainable lifestyles make any attempt to seriously address the climate crisis politically unimaginable.

We are not better than our leaders. It is easy, much too easy, to point our fingers at Johnson and say what he should do. It much less easy to acknowledge his faults in ourselves, that indeed people voted him, even if indirectly, into power. We, too, should apologize. We, too, have changes to make.

Update, July 7, 2022: Boris Johnson has agreed to resign once a successor is found. His time as prime minister is among the shortest on record.[8]

  1. [1]Heather Stewart, Rowena Mason, and Jessica Elgot, “Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak quit – throwing Boris Johnson’s future into doubt,” Guardian, July 5, 2022,
  2. [2]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  3. [3]Harry Lambert, “Why Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak finally lost patience with Boris Johnson,” New Statesman, July 5, 2022,; Graham Russell and Martin Farrer, “‘Johnson on the brink’: what the papers said about Boris Johnson’s cabinet resignations,” Guardian, July 5, 2022,; Telegraph, “This political crisis must be resolved,” July 5, 2022,; Times, “The Times view on Boris Johnson’s position: Game Over,” July 6, 2022,
  4. [4]George Monbiot, “Outer Turmoil,” June 17, 2019,
  5. [5]David Benfell, “Why we won’t respond to climate change,” Not Housebroken, October 16, 2018,
  6. [6]David Benfell, “We are monsters,” Not Housebroken, April 9, 2022,
  7. [7]David Benfell, “When confusion starts killing people, it is long past time to recognize it for what it is,” Not Housebroken, April 21, 2020,
  8. [8]Karla Adam and William Booth, “Boris Johnson expected to resign amid party revolt,” Washington Post, July 7, 2022,; Max Colchester, “U.K.’s Boris Johnson to Resign After Scandals Grow Too Great to Handle,” Wall Street Journal, July 7, 2022,; Telegraph, “The only three PMs who had shorter tenures than Boris Johnson,” July 7, 2022,

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