Absolutely Zeke

“The way I see it Brad, somewhere between the puritanical practice and the hedonistic gullibility is the fusion of permanence and change, madness and cool reason.”

I may march fearlessly into the future if I am confident it will be better than the past. Whither such confidence? Perhaps I have simply been lucky thus far and the story that I tell myself of life is imbued with positive expectation. Perhaps I am a member of a class that has control over the means of production, or a profession that has erected barriers to entry, and I envisage my control continuing. Perhaps I live in a society in which material and cultural changes have within living or recent memory lifted my forebears from penury and ignorance, so I find it straightforward to believe that this will persist into the future. Perhaps I have been inculcated with the Enlightenment orthodoxy of ‘progress’; or I am persuaded that neo-Darwinian processes of change, whether smooth or punctuated, are inevitable and if met with positive intent will culminate in positive outcomes; or perhaps the tenets of my faith – Christian, Muslim, Confucian, Buddhist - supply a psychological shield of hope or serenity.

In the absence of such confidence, if I do not have these various protections, I am fearful of change and I shall resist it if I can. I foresee the loss of income or status: I shall fight for my job. I dread the collapse of my community: I shall march with my brothers and sisters to defend our tradition. I have lost faith in my leaders – their gods and their policies – and I shall blame immigrants, I shall seek vengeance, I shall use violence.

Afraid of the future, unable or unwilling to countenance changes to my life that are beyond my control, I shall hunker down, I shall look the other way, I shall take refuge in trinkets and mysticism. I shall, like a child, hope that it will all go away. My resistance shall, if all else fails, be passive and stubborn.

Entreaties may be made to me. I do not trust them. These people – these politicians, these scientists, these journalists – the people have lied to me before. Me, my family, my neighbourhood, my class – we have suffered before. You – the confident, the prosperous, with the control and the power – you will be fine. Again you seek to assuage us. Your philosophies and your theories and your models mean nothing to me: I believe only the practical, the manifest, the real.

Don’t tell me, show me.

* * * * * *

Professor Richard Sennett gave the closing address at the Compass annual conference in 2006. Sennett’s theme was trust. In those dog days of the Blair administration, Sennett was concerned, in particular, to explain the processes that shape the degree of trust between citizens and their elected representatives. Blair had, post-Iraq, achieved an acutely refined condition of being distrusted, not least by those comprising Sennett’s audience, which had indeed spent its day in various apoplectic states of dismay at the way in which Blair had traduced, misled and generally betrayed them. Sensing the mood, Sennett (a gifted lecturer) abandoned his prepared speech and sketched the bare bones of an alternative talk whilst sitting in an anteroom only minutes before he took the lectern (a truth to which I can testify because I had the privilege of sitting next to him on a bench as he did it). His principal assertion was this: that trust is grounded not in conviction, but in consistency (the unfinished sixth of Calvino’s memos).

Sennett invited his audience to reflect on the superabundance of policies and initiatives that had characterised the Blair years (a character that has hardly subsided since). Barely was the ink dry on last year’s initiative when this year’s arrived. What is the citizen to make of this? It would seem to indicate that last year’s initiative could not have been much good, else why would they need a new one this year? And this new one – well, we should probably expect another one next year, should we not? Not much point in changing everything to cope with these latest initiatives if we’ll have to do it all again next year; and no point at all in investing any trust in the people responsible, since they clearly have no idea what they are really doing.

The most trusted politician in Europe – Sennett intoned – is someone most of you will never have heard of. He is Matti Vanhanen. He is the Prime Minister of Finland. He is well known in Finland for not doing very much. He is not especially liked (he doesn’t smile much in public and is considered boring). But he is very highly trusted because when he does say he’s going to do something, he does it. He doesn’t do much, but what he does do, he does.

Trust comes from consistency.

* * * * * *

One can see the dilemma. Governments are elected to ‘do’ things and so that’s what they do: create new crimes, reform education on a continuous basis, overhaul the organisation of the health system at regular intervals, and so forth. It is hard to imagine a form of politics in which one might hear a statement such as: “It is important that recent changes have the opportunity to bed down and for everyone to adjust to the new rules. I am therefore announcing a moratorium on new initiatives of at least twelve months.”

All change brings uncertainty, and the majority of us who do not have the resources to defend ourselves against the anxieties that may be prompted by such uncertainty look to particular people or particular organisations to reassure us, to help us. For that reassurance to be useful, for it to have the necessary resilience and strength to do its work, we have to have trust in the individual or organisation to which we look.

This, for example, is how – and why – a brand like Marks & Spencer is able to initiate a programme such as Plan A, a programme that is, in the words of its Chairman Sir Stuart Rose, ‘half a step ahead’ of its customers. M&S customers ‘know’ that their food and clothing needs to be produced in a more sustainable way: they know, too, that, as individuals, they cannot possibly attend to the full gamut of environmental and ethical and supply chain and pricing and other issues implied by sustainability; but they trust M&S sufficiently to be guided by them towards sustainable choices. M&S is just ahead, leading, but not so far ahead that we get lost.

We need the same of our politicians. Only when they have regained our trust – by slowing down, by speaking clearly and directly and, most of all, by being consistent – only then will they be able to lead us towards the sustainable lifestyles we know we need.

And if they can’t do it, then we’ll get new leaders.

[If there's a photo down here it was added August 2017 as part of blog refresh.  Photo is either mine or is linked to where I found it. Make of either what you will.]


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