We imitate the society around us.
This social theory, which the French thinker Rene Girard expounds with particular eloquence, explains why we behave the way we do, and why society stumbles into its blind spot of a default future.
Instead of designing, creating and planning the kind of future society we want, instead of aspiring and dreaming of the kind of tomorrow that inspires us to live our best, we allow invisible social forces to propel us along the same old status quo. Tomorrow then becomes like our yesterday, and progress becomes a myth.
Looking around in Guyana we see plenty to fuel the myth that we progress as a nation. Personal material wealth abounds, with expensive cars, lavish houses and flashy lifestyles easy to spot. We see these and believe we progress.
Our government ministers moved from pushing old Soviet motorcycles sputtering from Freedom House across a pot-holed Robb Street in 1992, to today driving multi-million dollar Prados, wearing imported designer suits, and living in fancy marble-designed houses, and we now believe we have progressed as a society.
So strong is the myth, that even to suggest that our progress is an illusion provokes an irate backlash.
But the state of our human resource capital, the quality of our people, remains mired in under-development. This second decade of the 21st century sees us battling with a society steeped in illiteracy and innumeracy, producing results of 65 percent failure rate in Math and English for young, adult school leavers.
We fail to design our future. We fail to aspire to a society that moves up, that elevates every Guyanese to be a thinking world citizen. We imitate the mediocrity around us, and find excuse, escape in rhetoric, to camouflage the myth, deceiving even ourselves.
Mediocrity abounds. When we look around us we see this passive tolerance for below average performance. Very few care. Our literacy crisis, for example, stumbles along in blindness, and few even notice this alarming structural defect of the foundation of our society.
Even visionaries, and the few who experience moments of epiphany, insight and zeal, eventually fall victim to the state of the society around them. Eventually, we all imitate what’s around us.
The leader who tries to make a difference soon discovers that all around him or her, everyone resists and kicks against reform, transformation, or a new system and way of being. Once the society of the majority chooses to shrug off responsibility and drift into passive numbness, eventually the one who might see and feel the coming catharsis also falls asleep and gives up on creating an inspiring future.
A frightening hubris flows out of a society embracing mediocrity, and the person who dares to attempt to turn things around soon becomes a scapegoat, with the society upset at him or her.
Anxious to win the approval of those around, keen to escape the angry scapegoating that isolates, the visionary gives in and merely becomes another imitator.
And the mediocre society resumes its slow slide to its default future, fooling itself that it’s advancing, even as it stumbles through blind spot after blind spot.
Girard studied this phenomenon, of us imitating each other, of a society perpetuating its flaws and defects into a never-ending cycle.
Here in Guyana, we imitate the mediocrity with alarming alacrity. Eventually, no one cares. The society pulls down the one who sees the dirt on the wall and calls for the scrubbing brush.
So now we no longer see or feel the mediocrity around us: the treatment of our deranged dwelling in our public places; the garbage pile ups; the illiteracy reflected in how people talk to each other, with loud uncouthness; the corruption that eats away at both the public and private sector; the lack of morals and ethics in personal behaviour; the low standards of professionalism in the country; the quality of education even at the University of Guyana; the poor state of the national media; the quality of Parliamentary debate; the lack of entrepreneurship fuelling innovation and new business across the land – from Essequibo to Berbice. The list is endless.
We see the diplomatic community pleading for local government elections, and for a clean Georgetown. We hear the strange voice and wake up for a moment, then lapse right back into the status quo of mediocrity. The diplomatic community, tongue-lashed and scapegoated for interfering in our affairs, retreats behind walls of silence. The status quo wins.
Those who refuse to fall into the mud march of imitation become frustrated and either quit the society, migrating, or become revolutionary. In our society, people just up and leave. We board a plane and walk away from the hubris.
For those who take on the task of reforming this society, of lifting Guyanese to become a world class society of global, 21st century citizens, the task would not be easy.
How could we lift the Guyanese society out of its stultifying mediocrity?
First, we must develop the inner courage and strength to cultivate a vision that is so strong, so rooted, that no amount of public criticism, or no tearing down of our intention, could distract. We must resist the pressure to imitate the society around us.
Then, we must cultivate a conversation that draws a clear picture of the possible future that could come out of taking reforming action. We must see the result, the created future, so clear and so real, that we talk of the results as being absolutely certain.
Our leaders in Government, and in Parliament, to lead the rest of the society away from this damning status quo of mediocrity, must first cultivate in their own minds and hearts a clear picture of the future of the Guyanese nation, with specific, definite results – seeing those results as real.
Then, our leaders, in cultivating a national conversation, would take a stand to plan, create and design our future, rather than hope things fall into place.
Our leaders, setting the tone for our national behaviour, must aspire to lead us away from our default cycle into a new, inspiring future.
We cannot afford to imitate the society of mediocrity if we want inspiring performance.