02 August 2018

A beginner's guide to making this world a better place

So you want to make this world a better, a more civil place(1)? We all do. Here are a few things I have learned.

1: You cannot change the world on a global scale.

I knew an analyst who genuinely wanted to make this world a better place. She would tell you about her ideas how to end world hunger and reduce poverty, yet if things did not go her way in the office, she would stab any colleague in the back. That is not how it works.

If you are lucky, you can change the small world that you inhabit -- your spouse, your family, your friends, your co-workers. You can change society, but only one person at a time, and only very quietly.

2: Everybody has a boss.

A monarch is dependent on her subjects. A C.E.O. is reporting to a board of directors, which is reporting to shareholders(2). A prime minister is at the mercy of his constituency. A business owner is dependent on her customers.

Because the first goal of leadership is to maintain leadership(3), all leaders act in accordance with the wishes of those who keep them in power. Therefore, you won't change a leader's mind, if the outcome weakens his position. Besides, "justice is simply what is in the interest of the stronger party."(4) And the stronger party usually does not call you to the table, except maybe to clear the dishes.

So what to do if the leader is only acting rationally(5), nobody in the system can be held responsible, and you are not invited anyway? That is when you study the facts, the laws and policies, and the common beliefs.

For example, one common belief is that corporate leaders have a legal duty to maximize corporate profits and shareholder value. Yet, "[m]odern corporate law does not require for-profit corporations to pursue profit at the expense of everything else, and many do not."(6)

3: Knowledge is power(7).

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, they say, so make sure your good intentions are well informed. Get a good education(8). Read, read, think, and read some more. Become good at thinking. It takes time.

Keep in mind the First Law of Ecology: Everything is connected to everything else. Anything you do will have consequences, whether they are intended or not.

Most importantly, if you don't know, remain silent(9). Silence is good protector(10), but also a good countermeasure(11).

4: If you want to be credible, you must live by example.

You cannot advocate against injustice, corruption, or stupidity by being unjust, corrupt, or stupid yourself. That doesn't mean you never will be, but that you must try. Sometimes you have to compromise, and even Hannah Gadsby recently remarked: "I am left with a choice. I either be an idiot or a hypocrite … Like ... I'll be a hypocrite."(12)

Your methods must be unassailable in principle -- authentic, civil, honest, and transparent.

Yes, it is tempting to fall into dirty trickery. Donald Trump's trifecta comes to mind -- inventing falsehoods, diverting from issues, and inciting emotional responses(13). Or Russian "active measures"(14). The brutes and the crooks seem to have it so much easier.

But keep in mind that you are in for the long haul, and that in fact credibility is your most precious weapon, in both attack and defence.

5: You stand alone, alone.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."(15)

Our Western societies usually grant us this right in some form or another. This right we hold as private citizens; it does not extend into our workplaces. Consequently, I do not recommend to try to spread your ideas in the workplace unless you are very very good.

An acquaintance of mine once questioned the fairness of faculty promotions at the University of British Columbia. He had gathered support from faculty colleagues, and they met with the dean to discuss the issue. "Remember the scene in Robocop," he told me after the meeting. "When the prototype malfunctioned, and everybody started running for their life. That's pretty much how the meeting went after the dean started talking."(16)

If you do bring your ideology to the workplace, expect to stand alone, alone(5).

6: Don't die on every hill.

You cannot make the world a better place by being nice. And you cannot make the world a better place by insulting people. Making the world a better place is a tightrope walk on an invisible tightrope made of snakes and landmines.



(1) I define "a better, a more civil place" as a place where all of us experience more peace, freedom, justice, liberty, equality, solidarity, honesty, transparency, respect, creativity, compassion, fairness, knowledge, skills, and so on.
(2): Richard Branson (2009), Losing My Virginity: "As well as the constrictions of having to report to nonexecutive directors and shareholders, one of my main frustrations with being a public company quoted on the stock market was the short-term view which investors took."
(3) Niccolo Machiavelli (1513), The Prince.
(4) Plato (ca. 375 B.C.E.), The Republic: 338c
(5) All people are rational in a very basic sense: They want to survive. Survival in modern society means to keep what you have and to secure your future employment.
(6) https://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/04/16/what-are-corporations-obligations-to-shareholders/corporations-dont-have-to-maximize-profits (Accessed: 2 Aug 2018)
(7) As Sir Francis Bacon (1597) is often paraphrased: "Scientia potentia est." Earlier, Herodotus (ca. 425 B.C.E.) expressed a caveat: "This is the bitterest pain among men, to have much knowledge but no power." I disagree with Herodotus: The bitterest pain among men is men with no knowledge but much power.
(8) The proximate goal of education is knowledge retention and knowledge transfer, not more, not less.
(9) Ludwig Wittgenstein (1922), Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: Proposition 7: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."
(10) As my grandmother used to drill me: "To speak is silver, to remain silent is gold."
(11) Franz Kafka (1917), The Silence of the Sirens: "Now the Sirens have a still more terrible weapon than their song, namely their silence. And although such a thing has never happened, it is conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing, from their silence, never."
(12) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vj2sMl1rps4 (Accessed: 2 Aug 2018)
(13) https://youtu.be/1ZAPwfrtAFY?t=5m2s (Accessed: 2 Aug 2018)
(14) https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/01/russia-is-already-winning-214648 (Accessed: 2 Aug 2018)
(15) http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/ (Accessed: 2 Aug 2018)
(16) R.P. (2003), personal communication: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_UNJNH7UFjU (Accessed: 2 Aug 2018)

(This is the last of three related articles: Would you have dinner with Hitler?, On pulling my socks up -- A letter to Ms. Gadsby, and A beginner's guide to making this world a better place.)