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?
There are a lot of criticisms about capitalism – about how it is destroying the natural environment, and how it is causing psychological harm to people and societies. There are criticisms of the giant corporations that are homogenising the world and destroying cultures, while a few people at the top of these corporations obtain a huge majority of the benefits.
All of the statements laid out above are very true. There can be debates about the specific degree of impact, but there is agreement that there is impact.
Many assumptions drive the consumerist society. The few ones that usually come to mind are that material goods are the main ways for people to show their social status, and that people are psychologically insecure and need material goods to assuage anxiety. After all, the best advertisements are ones that seem to offer psychological gains to the user/owner of the product. A car isn’t just a means of transportation, but about offering “freedom” – a family car is about “safety, assurances, convenience”. A watch becomes a signifier of taste and sophistication; a laptop becomes attached with action or efficiency. These symbols are all around us, and to ignore their power is a mistake.
These assumptions create demand. I find it curious how economists often talk about supply and demand as if they were abstract things in themselves. In clothing themselves in the economics-lingo, what’s often obscured are the psychological things of demand and desire. What people want, leads to what companies want. People wanting computing power becomes companies finding means to procure the resources to get them, which creates demand for other companies to supply other things to them. Financial systems develop to facilitate these demands – financial instruments were invented to reduce risks for farmers supplying products to the markets. They served real needs to protect their income and to supply appropriate goods to the markets. Reducing uncertainty remains the primary task some segments of the financial markets done in albeit complicated ways.
Can firms create demand? I find that demand is ultimately a psychological trait – one that’s always there and manifested in terms of the products that are acquired and owned.
So what is the economy? The economy is the activity and structure of firms and resources to meet people’s desires. The substantive content of the desires shows up in the goods that are produced and exchanged. The global economy is thus the economy on a global level, as firms and resources circulate to meet the demands of people around the world. Capital facilitates these flows with the creation of credit and debt; capital is given now with the belief that it will be repaid. As capital systems become an important part of the economy, one could suggest that the economy is a way of creating credit with the belief that it will be repaid sometime in the future – the economy is a way of satisfying today’s desire by borrowing from the future in the belief that it will be repaid sometime later on.
There really are two very deep assumptions that operate in the economy – the belief that material goods are required for psychological satisfaction, and that the future will be better than the best (for people to repay their debts). The two assumptions could work like this: because people will keep wanting to buy things, and some of them could be big expensive things, that people would incur debt to buy them. And the cycle continues, as people continue to buy things in a consumerist arms-race, furthering incurring debt, and so on. Only the bankers win, it seems.
If economic issues are framed like this, then the biggest threat to any economy, or to the global economy is simply that, people will stop wanting things beyond necessity/sustenance items. If people stopped wanting to be rich for its own sake, the global economy would not exist in the current state. Non-intuitively, people might actually be better off when they didn’t have to compare their material wealth with another.
I admit that this way of thinking about the economy is far from satisfactory, and leaves out many other things, such as where’s the place for community life, or what about non-market or non-economic activities. What about art? What about religion, or helping the poor? What about the marginalised, and culture?
I’ve heard about a cynical perspective about where culture comes from, in line with the consumerist perspective here. There’s at least a train of thought suggesting that culture is merely what the rich do to compare against another. The ostentatious products created as rich families compete against one another for prestige and status inadvertently creates cultural artefacts. That’s just one view, and there are surely are more benign views of where culture comes from.
There’s a line from Marx that says, “All that is solid melts into air.” I thought that applied very well during financial crisis, when the digits supposed to represent billions of dollars become zero – as expectations are inflated and then, deflated.
That’s what the “economy” is – our own expectations projected onto the real world, be they digital or physical.
[Admin note: I’m back from the overseas trip, and will be taking this series in a new direction.]
There is one item that I have not addressed in full, and that’s the part about decision-making – how decisions are made and the cognitive biases that often arise. For now, the works by Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and Gary Klein ought to be the guiding lights. They focus on the psychological bases of decision-making. In the works of Kahneman and Tversky, numerous cognitive biases are identified – a lot of which had to do with the framing of information and the context in which that information is presented in.
The way we make decisions is based on how the information is presented to us – and especially so if we constantly use what Kahneman describes as System 1 – the intuitive and unconscious processes that nonetheless determines how we make our decisions. Kahneman urges us to use our System 2 more frequently – System 2, referring to the slower, conscious and much more deliberate processes that we activate, such as when we are working through a difficult, multi-step mathematics problem. Checklists might be another effective way of structuring our thinking that reduces cognitive biases. Gary Klein might have a different view, but the end result is often the same – good decisions are often made through good representation of the information.
Then there is the tradition of decision-making that comes from looking at politics. I’ve been trying to go through Irving Janis’s Groupthink – where the processes that lead to the political fiasco in the US were identified. As things turn out, sometimes, the processes behind groupthink and bad decisions are the result of having prioritised social bonds and harmony within the in-group more than anything else. There appear to be, in actuality, a few simple guidelines to achieve rigour in decision-making.
1. Be open to different views, especially if they are dissenting views;
2. Have time to think and activate System 2 as far as possible and not just rely on “gut instincts”;
3. Represent the problem meaningfully – this is admittedly a difficult tone, as there can be very many ways to do it. Yet, we want to avoid problems like the Florida Balloting format in the presidential elections in 1999/2000, which confused people. In this respect, we do know of worse and better ways of presenting choices.
There is another way to think about actions. Since actions are about the construction of new systems, there are other deliberate ways to design entire systems. Futures constitutes one way to think about decisions in time. There are other processes that help with designing processes and systems. There is design thinking. Design thinking can be thought of as a process to create systems that create positive experiences for people. Often the result is a different context in which actions are applied into, and these actions can, but not always result in different sets of decisions. One of the steps in design thinking is almost about choices – rapid prototyping. In this step as I understand it, the ideas drawn from ethnography and prior research contribute to the construction of prototypes of products or processes. These things are tested and evaluated to see how they might fare in the rough and tumble of reality.
On the larger scale of things, culture is a set of rules designed for a set of contexts. That’s not to say that cultures are deliberately designed with definite intentions towards managing particular problems in specific environments. Having a tacit understanding of cultures bring down the costs of communications and transactions between people belonging to the same tribe or clan. Besides cronyism is nothing but that – where people of the same culture collude together not deliberately because they are of the same clan or tribe or region, but simply because they are people who could be trusted. This is certainly not a defence of these things, but for the contemporary era, some of these culture traits could become maladaptive – instead of creating benefits, they end up giving disadvantages.
Lately I have been re-reading Wired for War. Before that I had been reading a whole range of topics on the subject of neuroscience, emotional development, human psychology and the like.
Research in neuroscience and development psychological has led me to think about the outsized role that early childhood development has on the constitution of the person in adulthood.
The mother remains the emotional centre of the young child during the formational years. These are the years where the individual begins to learn to feel secure to the adults around him/her. Developmental events during this time creates the foundation for either a secure adult, or an anxiety adult.
Adolescence is another period, where the individual begins to form their own unique identity. The source of identity during this period builds on the foundation of emotional stability established in the earlier periods of life.
Why does all of these matter? These micro-psychologies matter because the emotional stability of individuals are the foundation for the kinds of societies we become. The emotional fabric we weave as children become the foundation of the kinds of adults we become. A society of anxious, inwardly-insecure people can drive people towards the pursuit of material outcomes at the expense of other good and important things in life. I wonder about the link between psychological insecurity and outwardly behavioral trends – I wonder if a real link exists. The correlation is tantalizing – that insecure people would want to attach themselves to outwardly tangible things, such as fashion and material wealth.
The attachment to physical things becomes a sign of weakness. Not being able to feel secure with their own existence, people latch onto things they can have a firm hold on. Material objects acquire this is importance – having property, having the latest gadgets, or having status symbols. This is to signal to others who they belong to – they belong to the future, they have the capability and capacity to obtain these items of the future that others can’t have yet. Individuals who are secure on the other hand, would not require these external objects as validation, if the logic follows. Individuals who are inwardly secure can tap into their rich inner lives for the security, even for extroverted people.
How does this affect governance? Any organization becomes a source of emotional attachment, and so it matters for individuals the kinds of cultures that people get attached to. A country is a sum of its various organizations be they private or public, be they religious or secular. The kinds of emotional attachments that people form to these organizations matter, because these attachments also form the bases for their interaction with other organizations.
Lest this view become too reductionistic, I want to avoid this by recognizing that every level of interactions has its own dynamic. The interactions of individuals within the organization would differ from the interactions that organizations have with one another. Nonetheless, the state continues to have a massive role in setting the context for the kinds of interactions that different institutions will have with one another.
Theories of emotions, psychology and neuroscience matter nonetheless because all abstractions aside, individuals will determine how those interactions are shaped, not organizations in the abstract. The quality of relationships between and within organizations is the quality of the individuals and their communicative power.
On a larger scale, these notions of emotional and psychological attachments form the bases for notions of security and defense, be they from a physical, or psychological perspective. At its heart, warfare remains a psychological tool – a tool to dissuade or destroy the will of a potential adversary to wage war. The means of warfare – the tanks, ships, aircraft and missiles are instruments of that will. The interplay between will and means drives the security dynamic. The characteristics of the will is the centre of focus – and it is in this respect that more attention is paid to the psychological and neurological foundations in the analysis of conflict. This interface is where the mashing between Brooks and Singer becomes useful. The psychological and emotional health of the population that’s both the target and the perpetuators of war becomes important. Only on this foundation can the debates about the development and deployment of technologies can be meaningful. In essence, the question becomes – what does the development of robotics and networked-operations say about the emotional and psychological health of the society? The reverse question is also meaningful – how does emotional and psychological health support/advance/resist/dissuade the development and deployment of technologies in warfare?
Would the world be safer is it had more self-secure individuals? Yes. Without the need for external attachment, the pursuit of material wealth would be diminished greatly. And without that, the need for natural resources, the associated degradation of the environment and the cost to human welfare would also be greatly diminished. Without the insecurities would also greatly diminish the impact of charismatic leaders tending towards destruction.