Why events such as the social cohesion summit will not succeed.
There’s something seriously wrong with me. The unwavering belief that there is mostly goodwill in the majority of human beings must be a reflection of an unhinged mind – or so I gather from some of the comments on my articles and conversations with friends and acquaintances. Global surveys that show consistent erosion in trust in institutions such as government and business is further evidence of my deluded state.
It’s not that I have not experienced more than a normal share of cheating, deceit, betrayal, loss and even criminal actions. I have. I’ve experience murder close to home; muggings, been defrauded by someone very close, betrayals and dishonest dealings. I’ve been told that I also have an above normal level of insecurity. Yet I hold on to the belief that most people are fundamentally good and benevolent.
It’s based on the simple logic that if 7-billion or so people on the planet were overwhelmingly driven by unbridled greed and their own immediate self-interest, were out to exploit and gaff each other at every opportunity and were prevented only by law from doing so, we would simply terminate ourselves in a kind of “species-suicide.” The “social contract” defined by the 17th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes would be torn up and we would indeed have a “war of all against all”.
In the absence of a large measure of mutual goodwill we would have to have many more “watchers” in uniform, and then more watchers to watch the watchers and so on. We would certainly need to have many more laws, which will create more criminals in turn requiring many more prisons until those inside outnumber the free – although arguably the free would be shackled by their own fears and insecurities.
At the same time, it can be argued that distrust has a strongly nurturing environment, surrounded as we are by crime, corruption, government and business misconduct, and social and economic insecurities. These are the things that make news headlines. In the process we miss the point that they make news headlines because they are still the exceptions, albeit more frequent, and that the vast majority of our day to day interactions and transactions are based on a very good measure of trust and mutual benefit. They do not make headlines because they are normal and indeed mundane.
Trust captures the ability to assume the benevolent intent of another. It is not necessarily an absolute or unconditional state. There are an infinite number of degrees between absolute trust and absolute distrust. The critical issue is that it should never be withheld automatically, and that at its most neutral point, there at least has to be a large measure of willingness to trust, an openness to accept the good intent of the other. Intuition, experience and wisdom deepened by life experiences enable discretion but they too can become dysfunctional if they imply automatic distrust. That is a state of paranoia and even a possible neurological disorder called dementia. It is a state of immense individual disquiet and suffering.
Trust can only be earned by having the interest of the other at heart. That implies a demonstration of that intent. It cannot be earned by approaching the other with a clear intent of getting something out of them; of approaching them with demands and your own needs and wants. Not only does that erode trust, but it is a strong motive to distrust.
That is largely what happened at the recent South African Social Cohesion Conference. Apart from the fact that it mostly paraded a litany of known problems obstructing cohesion, a number of the key role players seemed to see the summit as a platform for repeating hackneyed demands. Unsurprisingly, chief amongst those was the Trade Union leader Zwelinzima Vavi, whose refrain “no social cohesion without economic equality” was a cohesion killer at the outset. No-one disagrees with the argument that we have an intolerable level of income inequality but having used that argument in many a wage negotiation, organised labour has made it a demand for higher pay rather than for addressing other key issues such as lack of South African labour flexibility and competitiveness, and empowering the workforce with skills, opportunities and most important of all a desire to make a contribution..
Putting demands to the other is a sure killer of trust, and the summit, at least in my researching of the unenthusiastic media coverage, reflected an absence of willingness to make sacrifices and a contribution in the interest of engendering trust and social cohesion. It was set up to fail. But then the timing is not right for such a lofty ideal. We simply have to get the basics right, do what we know has to be done, and government effectively and incorruptibly do what it has been mandated and given taxpayers’ money to do, before such an ideal can become remotely practical.
The second reason for my deluded state of trusting the general goodwill of mankind is that the immediate self-interest driver in business and economics is an aberration, a perversion of the natural existential state of transaction. Despite the on-going Barclays Bank debacle, revealing a very self-serving global financial sector, if not business generally, we tend to forget that overall most transactions, of which small and medium businesses make up a good number, reflect a different and more trusting picture.
My trust in business is rooted in a more fundamental and longer term reality. Again beating an old drum of mine, the natural relationship between supply and demand is that supply exists to serve demand. Transaction has a benevolent base and economics works at its best when it gives due recognition to this, when companies see their primary role as being of service to customers. “Going back to the basics” as IMF Chief Christine Lagarde told the financial sector. The rest, wages and profits are outcomes aimed at ensuring sustainability and continued service.
This message has been lost in the past few decades. Until it returns (and I have faith that it will) the granting of trust will be reluctant at best, and restricted to misguided souls like me.