Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Polity of Certainty or Polity of Doubt?

It is a striking phenomenon that we human beings have a strong penchant for supposing we comprehend things, sometimes even how the whole world functions. We have opinions on most things, and if not, are quite fast in formulating one if so prompted. Indeed, it seems to be almost expected of us socially to have such ready-made opinions on just about everything. This fact is ever again driven home to me during political discussions, debates and elections. Each participant – if spectator, analyst or candidate - has his or her own take of the state of affairs, what the problems “really” are and what “exactly” needs to be done to solve them.

What conceit – if not sheer lunacy – however, to think things are so simple! The complexity of the world (including all political process) is thus, that no human being - citizen, politician or think-tank - can hope to grasp it all, make reliable predictions, or make proud declarations as to how to “solve” this or that problem, yes, if you only listen or elect me, this and that will happen. How refreshing (yet utterly unrealistic) it would be if a pundit, CEO or candidate would openly proclaim, “Frankly, I don’t fully understand this whole mess we are in and while I’ve got my hunches and inclinations, at the end of the day I simply don’t know for sure how to get us out of it. But we’re in this together and together we will stumble about as best we can, making judicious use of that which we can and do understand and using common sense as best we can. But predictions and promises? That I cannot and will not give you!”

Human existence is never a straightforward plan that simply awaits to be implemented. The trouble, however, is that while our limited, or “bounded”, human rationality is a fact, it is also a fact, as numerous empirical studies have shown, that perhaps the single most important trait of a “successful” leader is that he or she is decisive in his or her decisions, sticks with them and avoids signaling any form of doubt once the decision has been made. This has deep psychological – and even evolutionary – reasons, hailing from a still more primitive, precarious world setting than our 21st century reality presents us with. But therein lies the fundamental dilemma of any leader – above all a political one, repeatedly forced to make predictions and pledges. It is in essence one between honesty and utility.

Or does one in fact really need to choose between the two? Can one indeed be humble enough so as to be honest, while still confident and decisive enough so as to be effective as a leader?

While certainly not self-evident, I think the answer is yes. One can be decisive and confident also in acknowledged uncertainty. It simply requires an attitude that eschews what our current “achievement culture” (and perhaps even innate biological inclinations) seems disposed to undercut. But it is perhaps homo sapiens’ most remarkable asset to be able to rise – at least at times - beyond our predominant evolutionary tendencies and the social prescriptions they give rise to. And thus I shall close these considerations with the following entreat: dare to be humble, dare to be confident and dare to be bold!
Manuel Heer Dawson

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