23 July 2011

On stature-loss and stature-gain in erring times

I am convinced that every country has a more or less equal percentage of crooks, liars, racketeers, murderers, sycophants and so on. I am convinced, also, that each country has roughly the same percentage of decent people: generous, friendly, amiable, honest, skilled and humble. The same goes for political parties.  Indeed, I would extend the thesis to all comparable collectives.

There are no perfect communities. There are no perfect political parties. There are no perfect congregations. There are no perfect governments.  Indeed it is this inherent imperfection that makes for the formulations of rules and regulations, terms of engagement and codes referred to when punishment is meted out in the event of transgression.

‘Flaw’, if made public can be seen as fatal in these days of spectacle and brand positioning. This is why collectives tend to do whatever possible to keep flaw under lid and, if it pops out, to swiftly implement damage-control mechanisms. These back-up plans rarely include genuine penitence or humility. They seek not correction but recovery of brand loyalty and market share.

Reflecting on all this, I can’t help wondering when it was and how it is that honesty came to be thought of as a possible liability or a liability-generating sentiment. We all know no one is perfect. We’ve all erred. We have all encountered people who err and we know enough people who are remorseful. Yes, when it comes to a collective, we are stopped by the fear that admitting error would compromise the ‘us’ in irrecoverable ways.

Somewhere along the line, people have come to conclude that acknowledging error amounts to showing weakness and consequently leads to irrecoverable loss of stature. Two things seem to have been forgotten.

First, the world knows enough about imperfection and has no illusions on this count. Damage control can stop the rot but only for a while. It has the rarely acknowledged and never envisaged outcome that I like to call the ‘Pinocchio Factor’. The more you lie to cover up lie, the more you hide that which is too big to be hidden, the more you look the other way pretending to see what everyone else sees, the longer your nose grows.

Secondly, there is the stature that is lost in the attempt to retain it. If there is one easily obtainable political asset that politicians seem to be terrified to touch and exploit, it is humility. It not only makes the imperfect taller simply by admitting to imperfection, it adds to the project and the collective. Most importantly it not only makes the people believe that the relevant political (or commercial) entity more trustworthy, but gives additional space for project implementation (or taking the cause forward).

I was persuaded to write the above after reading about an observation made by the Minister of Housing and Construction Industries, Wimal Weerawansa.  Now I think Wimal is a great communicator and a powerful rhetorician. I believe he contributed much and in many ways to the nationalist cause. He’s been an embarrassment too.  He is not perfect. Like all of us. This is what he said:

‘Tough action must be taken against saboteurs within the government responsible for the fuel hedging gamble for which Sri Lanka might have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to bank.’ Wimal insists that those guilty must be compelled to pay this money:  ‘if they cannot pay their property and other assets must be confiscated; if they don’t have sufficient assets, they must be jailed for this criminal gamble’.

Wimal has not listed all the cases of wrongdoing or elaborated on the mischief-making, the crooks, liars, thugs etc. This does not mean the public is unaware of wrongdoing or that they are blind to the fact that a blind-eye is being cast upon the wrongdoers by those who are known to have perfect vision.

We don’t have perfect institutions. It is also known that even the institutions we have are often compromised by the enormous formal and informal powers vested in Mr and Ms Politician by the JRJ Constitution. It is also known that when such powers are real, the powerful can use and abuse them. It is recognized that there has been very little ‘usage’ when it comes to tackling the errant politician.

This government, like all governments, is made up of the ‘usual’ quota of miscreants. It has engaged I am sure in about as much mischief as any other government would. It can go on like this and even get returned to power. It can fall too, as other governments have before.

There is no stature-loss in admitting error. There is stature-gain in acknowledging mistake, taking action, punishing the wrongdoer and putting in place mechanisms that stop would-be miscreants. There are words being spoken in the streets, not by those who are of-birth anti-regime, but those who have supported this government and indeed applaud its achievements. The words include knowledge of wrongdoing. They are not loud because there is fear that such vocalization would play into the hands of those who want to divide nation and compromise the achievements wrought of much sacrifice.  That silence will not stop them from expressing preference come election time, I feel.

This government, like all governments, can do with stature-boost. Humility is a virtue and not a liability. That’s something that President Mahinda Rajapaksa might want to reflect on in these erring times.
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