One of the things I find endlessly fascinating about human beings is the gap between our avowed values and our behavior when we come under pressure. I have come to believe that your values are the ones that shape your conduct when you are dealing with a tough, high pressure situation or a life crisis, not the values you spout when you are showing off at the dinner table. Pieties are all too easy. What do you do when the going gets tough? What values truly underpin your conduct? I notice this most often when people claim to be profoundly devout, and they want you to know it. They claim an aura of sanctity. I have learned not to argue with them. I wait until they have to deal with complexity and then see what they do. You’d be amazed what some of these people get up to. More often than not, piety flies out of the window.
Look around you today. We are all supposed to be democrats these days. We love openness, inclusiveness, and transparency— everybody counts, every voice matters. But what do we do when the going gets tough? Let’s reflect on a few current situations around the world.
Leaders of new democracies: You know the type. You are the leader of a new, apparently stable democracy. What do you do? You cash in. You are feted around the world. You start lecturing other leaders about how they should run their countries…like yours! You are on the covers of global magazines. You are a respected leader in the global system. Then something happens. Your citizens say: hey, we have issues with you. They pile onto the streets to protest. They call you names. They send rude tweets, write insulting blog posts, and carry unflattering banners. What do you do now? Well, in most cases so far, these leaders have unleashed their inner autocrats. They have visited violence on citizens, thrown journalists in jail, undermined burgeoning institutions and so on. Rare is the case where listening and learning have been the outcome. What a surprise!
Citizens against democracy: I follow global events courtesy of BBC World News. BBC journalists are not only everywhere but they ask difficult questions. I have been intrigued by the crises of the last few years where citizens have actively conspired to undermine democracy in their own countries …in the name of democracy, no less! Sometimes they call for or actually support a military take-over. At other times, they push for an unelected body to take over from a validly elected government. When BBC journalists ask them about the rights of the other citizens’ majority, those that voted for the validly elected government, it is amazing to watch these protesters try to wriggle their way out of the headlock. They say all sorts of things, much of it arrant nonsense. I suppose nobody likes to admit that they are indulging their inner autocrat! But, as a wit once said, you cannot build democracy without democrats….
The Online theatre for thuggery: Do you remember the time when life on-line was supposed to usher in an era of free debate and discussion amongst citizens without the filter of editors and other arrogant mediators? What has happened instead? Here is the opening portion of a recent New Yorker piece titled ‘The Psychology of Online Comments’ :
‘Several weeks ago, on September 24th, Popular Science announced that it would banish comments from its website. The editors argued that Internet comments, particularly anonymous ones, undermine the integrity of science and lead to a culture of aggression and mockery that hinders substantive discourse.’
The article, penned by Maria Konnikova, is a thoughtful discussion of the response and the phenomenon of intellectual thuggery online. And only last Saturday, Melissa Harris-Perry , a top broadcaster on the cable channel MSNBC here in the United States and a professor of political science, announced her decision to quit Twitter. She was fed up with all the verbal assaults and threats masquerading as democratic debate and discussion. Stan Collymore, a top British footballer and commentator, has just quit Twitter for similar reasons. Many publications and blogs are struggling with the same issues. Online commentators often write the nastiest things about public figures and about one another. Again, many people, it seems, are only too happy to give free rein to their inner autocrats.
We have other instances, of course. Bosses often tell subordinates to speak freely, then get mad and vindictive when faulty reasoning is exposed by a junior colleague. Parents and teachers often tell kids to be bold and articulate, then pounce in anger when Junior corrects usage or exposes illogicality. Problem is: we are not good at being consistent, and we are not as evolved and sophisticated as we like to think we are.
And that is why pressure is the enemy of fakery…it exposes that inner thug!
Photo Credit: Mstyslav Chernov  (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons