The following piece from Blessings appeared in the Sunday Times of February 20, 2011. BD
The Poverty Of Ideas
Ideas are at the heart of progress in any sphere of endeavour. Without ideas, the world would virtually come to a standstill. However, ideas have to be competitive in order to steer progress. Any attempt to ‘monotholize’ ideas is disastrous. Even at an individual level, such an attempt can only result in stagnation, if not retrogression.
This reminds me of what one of our Reverends at Zomba CCAP used to say in most of his sermons and I quote “each individual is a walking civil war”. In other words, an individual is a bundle of contradictions which in the final analysis in an epitome of progress. To sin or not sin, one engages in some kind of debate. Rarely is sin not a product of rather protracted debates in our minds.
Ideas are particularly powerful in the world of politics. The evolution of political systems from monarchies through autocracies to democracies is a product of an open contestation of ideas. As Plato would argue, no political order is stable. In his conception of the paradigm of the cycle of change, Plato argues that no political system, even the so called mature democracies, is perfect. People are always searching for the best possible state of society that can harness their creativity to the fullest for meaningful and dignified lives.
This inevitable because according to Plato each society is beholden to the law of degeneracy. The degree to which the law of degeneracy embattles society is very much dependent on whether it entertains is a free market place for ideas or not. The free flow and let alone contestation of ideas allows a society to constantly renew itself. In other words, a society is constantly adjusting itself to new sets equilibria which allows it to fully exploit its potential.
Not many societies would claim to have reached such a stage. It is, of course, not difficult to do so but many leaders deliberately choose to frustrate progress by claiming monopoly of wisdom. They pretend they know it all. Even when the script is clearly off track, they are bold enough to project themselves as having all answers to the problems being experienced. And while some of the challenges are clearly beyond their grasp most of them are ironically self made.
There cannot only be one truth. This is evident even in the current thinking about development. In the era of post-modernism, there is no a universal path to development and prosperity. We can no longer talk of development but rather developments. This clearly underlies the primacy of the free market of ideas as a precursor of development and progress.
Consequently, a society that does not entertain alternative ideas, and in which the leadership projects itself as all knowing, catches up with the law of degeneracy rather rapidly. The decay is even much faster if a regime resorts to suppressing alternative ideas either covertly or overtly.
A regime that suppresses alternative ideas surely digs its own grave. Progress comes to a halt since this tendency creates a generalized and undefined sense of anxiety in the body politic which breeds fear and lack of self drive and innovation. The consequence is a culture of conformism which is an antithesis of progress. People simply do things to please the powers that be and not to take society to greater heights.
A society needs fresh ideas, debate and engagement at all levels in order to deal with pressing issues successfully. It becomes worrisome when there is clearly less tolerance to question the norms and values underpinning a society’s democracy. Invariably, universities suffer enormous decline as places for intellectual engagement and debates. They become centres of regurgitation instead of nodes for critical thinking which takes away from society the ability for Socratic questioning, accountability and responsibility.
As the law of degeneracy takes its toll, the public intellectual retreats especially if a regime falls prey to Macheviallian political tactics. Public intellectuals simply shut down. When we talk of public intellectuals, we are not talking only about those with links to institutions of higher learning.
Public intellectuals are everywhere. You can get them from all possible walks of life. They are in civil society, public service, private sector and even at community levels. These are simply individuals who are gifted with thinking outside the box. They are sources of new ideas that drive progress in various realms of life. Society benefits from engaging with their ideas in a civilized fashion even when they dare the mainstream thinking.
When public intellectuals shut down, a society experiences systemic failure. This is what ultimately breeds politics of poverty of ideas which is quite dangerous. There is often no going back even when it is very clear that a society is headed on an outright regressive trajectory. A society invariably finds itself stuck in an auto pilot mode since people are rewarded for conformity and dressed down for taking initiative that appears to threaten the status quo even when it is in the best interest of society.
Public intellectuals are indispensable since their role is to suggest alternatives, to make comparisons, to question orthodoxies, to interrogate motives so that an informed debate on public issues can take place. However, for this to happen, a society needs a new mindset, attitude and renewed energy besides progressive leadership.
Leaders have an important role to play in this revolution. Not any other type of leadership though; it requires a leadership that is well versed with the servant paradigm of leadership and genuinely believes in it. Primarily, incumbents must view leadership as a service to be provided to the people and not something to be exploited for selfish gains.
Not until then can leadership boldly challenge their followers that they cannot trade their nationality for any other place because their country is the best place on earth. This was a hit in Barack Obama’s recent State of Union address. How many leaders can boldly emulate Obama? Surely I can count them on my palm.