How can we think about idealism, when faced with the challenges in society and the world? Is it the end of the road, when we hit cynicism? Do we become apathetic fatalists, in which nothing we can do will ever change the situation? I think cynicism is not the final answer, and being a cynical idealism is an awkward term of phrase. I believe that the phrase to use is patient idealism, and it captures the reality of what happens in the world, yet also provides the space for ideals to be realised.
Cynicism had a different meaning in ancient Greece. Wikipedia described it as “living with virtue”, as in, living with the barest of necessities. Wikipedia also describes Cynicism as “to live regardless of the vicissitudes of life”, and to seek “eudaimonia.”
I guess there’s a very natural tendency for cynics to become apathetic about life, and then to think about how to get ahead, to live in reverse of the ancient cynics and seek material life as comfort and as the aim of life.
Cynicism appears to emerge during the transition of youth and into the real world of real responsibilities. Working in organisations, one can become disillusioned at what the world offers. I guess this transition is difficult for youths who have had some experience of activism, and realise that the world can be harder to change than when they first joined the scene. Many young people use their experience in activism as a CV filler to help them climb ladders to exclusive educational institutions; I guess they imbibe the values of the world and continue climbing other, perhaps even non-activist ladders.
There will be many people who use the term, “tempered idealism” as a way to communicate the result when the reality of things clashes with their idealism. People use the phrase to describe how their idealism needs to be compromised, especially when they seem unattainable now. Those who cannot see accommodation or compromises between so-called ideals and so-called reality can also lapse into apathy or fatalism – the belief that nothing possible can be done, so there’s little point in trying anything.
Many positions are possible. I remember using the terms “tempered idealism” a lot myself. Gradually however, I felt that this did not reflect what I truly felt. I did not feel that idealism was being moderated or had to be subjected to moderation or compromise. I thought that there were things I believed in that are good goals in themselves, and can be attained. However, they would need time to achieve. That led me to realise that a distinctly-different position was possible, and for myself, I call this patient idealism.
There might be a whole bunch of reasons why the factor of time is often not considered in activism and idealism. One of it could be due to life-experience. I guess when young people start out projects, they are often quickly done, and for great effect. People are often quickly encouraged, and want to do bigger and better things, and quickly hitting the limits of scale and resources. The other reason could be due to the general feeling of instant gratification, the idea that change must come, and it should come now and all at once. The other thing could be the idea that efforts will be rewarded with the goal – that a serious, concerted effort to make change happen can truly result in a discontinuous change or a break with the past.
All of these notions ignore the necessity of time, and the inertia of human institutions. Those views also ignore human psychology – that existing habits are, obviously hard to change, and that much social change, is a change in habits and mental perspectives, and those things cannot, are not subjected to large internal changes. To truly effect the changes one wishes to see in the world (after changing oneself, of course), one would have to change the direction of the organisations and institutions that matter. The would-be-activist would either establish an organisation, and grow it, or to enter into an organisation, and continuously change the groups that they find themselves in. After all, much of human activity takes place in organisations. Does the Internet portend a different model of organisation? As revolutionary as it is, it turns out that the Internet has appeared to strengthen the need for organisations – the Internet has changed the format and technology of organising, but it has not changed the need for organisations. No matter how crowdsourced a movement is, leadership is still necessary, though the leadership in dispersed connected movements call forth different skills.
Establishing a thriving organisation and climbing organisational ladders both take a lot of time, and both entail significant risks for the activist. Establishing a new organisation be it a movement or a social organisation is fraught with risks. Where does one get the resources of people and capital? Will the competition choke off growth? Can it find the legitimacy to survive? Yet there are clear advantages too. In establishing a new organisation, one can do something truly new (at least according to the founder), and not be weighed down by history and established patterns. One can afford to take risks in new organisations, and failure is possible. In entering an existing organisation, one faces a different set of conditions. There are existing patterns and habits, which in themselves are already difficult to change. One has to convince others that the change is legitimate, and functionally better. Activists would have to convince that the change advocated for is aligned with the direction of the organisation, and find more senior staff who can protect them from change-adverse colleagues, or even from other activists advocating for their direction of the organisation. They do however, take on far less risk than the starter of a new endeavour. Herein is the major tradeoff that is often not articulated – it is the tradeoff between risk and freedom.
Being an activist, or more broadly, a social agent of change is a matter of habit. One does not suddenly realise the need for change – one sees opportunities for change in many situations on many occasions. And there often are opportunities for change every where – the question is one of far-reaching it goes. It could be simple as making a mundane procedure more efficient, with less steps in between initiation and implementation, or in organising a movement for a previously neglected social need. One doesn’t wake up and realise that the world is fundamentally flawed and in need for a change in direction towards a greater good; one starts exploring how flawed the world is and sees the opportunities for change.
I don’t believe that one needs to climb to the top of the organisation hierarchy before change can be enacted. Activism – in whatever form, is a habit, and a skill – one in which there are paths to improvement, where mastery can be defined and attained. As with all skills, however, it requires time – the time to practise, to reflect on how to do it better, and to have the clarity of the goals to be achieved. Activism requires patience.
Policies enacted by government (or any other institution) can only do so much to get people thinking about their present conditions, and do so much to change their behaviours. Think about changing habits – habits are difficult to change when they are formed. Yet they can change, although they sometimes require an event major enough to change. And so think about the difficulty of engaging in change-making projects – without a crisis backdrop, people are generally not convinced of the need for change, because it would involve additional work especially during periods of transition. There are limits to how much change people can stomach all at once. With these things in mind, one realises that incremental changes are not acts of cowardice or conservativeness (though they can be). Incremental change is just the realisation of psychological realities – everything happening all at once fundamentally is just too much for people to stomach. Still, incremental changes, pursued consistently in the same direction, leads up to major changes. They take time, however, from five to ten years, and they depend on the fickleness of leadership and circumstances, which can unravel schemes. In activism and change-making, one has to play the very-long-game, and that is why it can take one’s entire lifetime for a cause.
This is why I use the term patient idealist for myself. I believe change is possible, even deep fundamental changes. However, they will take time to fully manifest, bearing in mind the realities of human psychology and the inertia of organisation and institutions. But they are only obstacles, and besides, what good important work wasn’t difficult?
Before I talk about change-making, I feel that there is a very strong need to articulate the assumptions that exist in our society and organizations. All change-making happens in the container, and we ought to think about what’s in the container before thinking about changing the content, or break the container altogether. Since people will always be in some sort of container (institutions and organizations), I’m going to think about what’s in the container – the assumptions and ideas that cause everything else to work. (I am using metaphors very loosely here, apologies.)
What are the prevailing assumptions today in most of our organisations? With these articulations of assumptions, I am not yet imposing value judgments on them – but when I do, I try to defend them.
One is that certainty is possible.
Two is that a lot of rewards are based on a zero-sum vision of the world.
Three is that rational thought is the only mode of cognition there is.
These three assumptions form the the bases of the world we live today, at least in the organization context. Working lives in bureaucracies start and end with these three myths. I call them myths because they are the building blocks of all the stories we tell one another at work. As the charisma and powers of heroes fuel the stories in older times, so in present day, certainty, zero-sumness and rational thought are the building blocks of the stories of our time.
Certainty is possible
There are people out there who think that there exists only “one correct answer”, or who think that there is only one vision of the world. They dismiss all other possibilities except their own.
That’s not true. Yet people and organizations strive to attain greater certainty. A whole industry – Intelligence – in both economic and security domains suggest that people pursue certainties in their environment. These are noble pursuits but ultimately unhelpful given that the real world is much more contested. Even if it’s desired, Objective Truth-finding would have to go together with the ability to deal with multiple truths.
Certainty is not possible – there will never be enough information to find out how an outcome will be; there is never enough time to go through all of that information to decide in time. Living with uncertainty is the only way there is.
Rewards are zero-sum
Is the gain for someone at work necessarily a loss for another person? If the rewards are limited, and if there can only be one winner, then the answer has to be, “yes”. Then again, if people are competing for different rewards, then the answer is, “no”. Is there a right answer to all the problems an organization has to solve? Certainly no. In an ideal world, people get to define themselves and establish unique roles for how they want to contribute to teams. But then, the cruel realities of poor HR policies can get in the way, and de-motivate people from the best of themselves.
If societies are driven to think that rewards are limited, and not everyone can win, perhaps the outcome is an individualistic society. When people can come together that the benefit of one adds to the benefit of others, then perhaps we can have people adding to one another.
Rational thought is the only acceptable mode of cognition
Defining “rational thought” is tricky. What I’m trying to get to here is the logic of thinking that suggests that all problems can be solved, and that optimal solutions are possible for most situations. That by following a linear train of thought, one can arrive at most answers. While this is true in many cases, there are also classes of problems where solutions cannot be arrived via deductive means. There certainly are very strong resonances with “Certainty is possible”.
The other neglected consequence is that everyone thinks that they are the most rational people, and that everyone else is irrational. Therefore, people should come round to my side of the argument, and all other perspectives are wrong. This extreme is most evident in authoritarian leaders who dismiss the opinions of others.
How are these three maxims related to change-making? I suggest that these three maxims are the way the world works – from a psychological, and epistemological point of view. These views are still dominant, and undergird the way how our education, economy and society turn. Understanding that they are the myths of our time is crucial in thinking about how change can proceed.
In the next post, I want to talk about “indicators”, and how the idea of “indicators” is very central to the three qualities mentioned here.
Made slight edits in the sentence on Intelligence.
Societies prosper and last due to the strength of their institutions
This is the conclusion derived from reading “Why Nations Fail” by Acemoglu and Robinson, and from reading “The Origins of Political Order” by Fukuyama.
Societies begin to decay when a particular group of people are able to exploit their privileged positions and use it to direct resources to their own private use. Typically, these privileged groups will want to benefit their friends, allies and relatives although not too much that they can overcome the ruler. Opportunities to success become closed and inequalities increase. Meantime, the privileged attempt to extract more resources from society and continue to use more exploitative means, while at the same time, closing off critical thought and openness to new ideas. The extreme examples today include the DPRK, and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. One could argue that the influence of US legislation by lobbyists constitute a worrying trend, but ultimately, the democratic process of elections and possible mobilization of various civil society groups can still form a robust check on potential abuses of power.
In Singapore, there is no sign that the elites are buying their power through financial or other means. While there are weaknesses in oversight processes, ordinary people and citizens, together with the selective transparency of the bureaucracy, still counts as a limited check. Despite rumours/fact of the children of ministers being awarded their scholarships, they are not given positions by fiat, nor can they demand it. In principle, elections still constitute a check on the power of the incumbent. Civil society is respected and influential in limited domains. While the PAP is powerful, it is not invincible.
As with any sufficiently developed society, the elites, despite their diversity, will still go through similar processes of socialization, be it all through their lives as children of privilege, or during their entry into highly privileged positions as adults. Due to the limited numbers they will get to meet each and socialize, but that does not mean that they are a monolithic bunch. Singapore’s elites still constitute a sufficiently-broad base that no particular group can wield unlimited power but remain constrained by the actions of others.
Singapore remains an open society, and possibilities of creativity still exist, though hamstrung by the small market here. There is nothing institutionally stopping the processes of innovation, and there are no edicts that prevent explicitly the enactment of new ideas – in fact we are very much encouraged to act on new ideas. Singapore has decided that there shall be no development of an alternative Internet, as PRC or the DPRK has done, nor will we become blocked off from global services.
There is much to celebrate on 9 August 2012 in Singapore. The strength and integrity of our institutions deserve our cheers.