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About the future, society and liars

We have, as a colleague so aptly reminded me a few days ago, completed another full trip around the sun. Although the trip is repeated year after year, it is never the same. The planet on which we travel through space, with interactions in its nature-sphere, its techno-sphere and its socio-psychological sphere, each year makes for a very interesting trip. These dynamic interactions and consequences are recorded in papers, magazines, history books, science journals and the little gossip circle around the coffee pot. This gives us, in temporal terms, a past.

About this past we can do absolutely nothing. We cannot change anything. We could learn from it, we could perhaps stop certain things from happening again, but that which has happened, has happened. These happenings are facts, some of which we may want to study and others we may want to forget. We have no power over them, yet we have power over the future. How is this?

As human beings, we seem constantly to want things (not necessarily material things) and it would seem that it is part of the human condition to act to achieve them. Someone described this eloquently: we act not because of but in order to. We are future-oriented and we need that future temporal space to discharge these acts or projects.

For most of us this future in the short term is labelled 2014. Suddenly our sense of the future is accentuated; we feel this need to have more knowledge of this future. In fact, it would have been great to have next week’s papers this week. Having said that in jest, as human beings we have a deep psychological need for structure; we can only live with uncertainty up to a point. We therefore build knowledge of this future based on our unique set of assumptions to attenuate this uncertainty. For instance and broadly speaking, we assume that the sun will still come up in the east and set in the west; there will be elections; the ANC will win the elections; I will finish my MBA this year; the University of Stellenbosch will still be here, etc. With many people building constellations of assumption, some make money on the stock exchange and others lose money. Some are successful and others not, because the actual events that unfold may either confirm or falsify their assumptions.

Building on the previous point, but also adding another angle, the philosopher Montaigne says that liars undermine society. He writes in one of his Essays: “Our understanding of one another being conducted through speech, he who counterfeits his speech betrays public society. It is our only tool for communicating our wishes and thoughts; it is the interpreter of the soul. If it fails us, we no longer clave together, and we know one another no more; If it deceives us, it breaks of our commerce and dissolves all the ties of our polity”

If I fly to Johannesburg for a meeting, I assume (mostly unconsciously!) a network of reciprocal commitments (made through our ‘speech’): I assume that the SAA’s commitment to service the aeroplane is kept, I assume the pilot will be sober, that someone will bring the steps, that OR Tambo will still be there and kept in good condition. I assume my colleagues’ ‘speech’ to attend the meeting will happen, etc. For that simple meeting to happen, many agents of society must keep their commitment to do their little bit. If not, i.e. if someone in the network ‘lies’, they undermine my project, they falsify my assumptions, they undermine society. 

This is true not only for politicians, but for business people, for civil servants, for the clergy, for everyone – all the election promises, the brand promises, the service delivery promises, the salvation promises, etc. Through our ‘speech’ (promises/commitments), we create a particular order which we assume will be maintained and we build our plans based on that.

My commitment to myself and to society is to keep the promises I make and to honour my undertakings, while expressing a need for you to do the same. In that way we collaborate not only to build a solid society, but to moderate all the uncertainties awaiting us in 2014. This may leave us with a past with fewer regrets and much learning.

The role that our thinking plays in this process is the content of our next conversations.

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