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Breaking the silence


I was struck by the opening paragraph of last week’s Opinion column by Dr. Jules Ferdinand that appeared under the caption, “When Good People Remain Silent.”
Dr. Ferdinand wrote as follows, “Democratic governments encourage persons to engage in critical thinking. They recognize the value of having freedom of speech and they see the value of freedom of the press. These governments benefit from improved performances and project development by encouraging critical thinking and inviting persons to voice their differences. To them, feedback is critical (even when negative) in influencing enhanced performance. The same benefits can be accomplished in our homes and workplaces.” {{more}}
This calls for some reflection, for certainly, there are many governments that are perceived to be democratic, based simply on the holding of elections at periodic intervals. In between elections, democracy appears to hibernate.
It is time we subject the term democracy to serious scrutiny and recognize the loose way in which it is used. As we continue the process of constitutional reform, the persons mandated to pull the process together need to base any draft of a new constitution on an understanding of what is democracy. We have, in doing so, to identify certain features that we consider critical to the establishment of a democracy. One of these features, undoubtedly, is freedom of speech, expressed in an atmosphere that provides some space for critical thinking.
Jules concentrates on the work place and focuses on the involvement of workers in the decisions of any organization. He acknowledges that it might appear to slow the process but argues that it becomes a useful investment in the long term.
A democratic government provides the context in which organizations can involve all their workers to the ultimate benefit of both the organization and nation state. Within any nation there are forces or structures that function at different levels, be they the home, the workplace or at the state level. The nation in the final analysis is really about the interplay between those different entities, where hopefully they influence and sustain each other. One would expect that workers that come out of an organization that encourages free speech and critical thinking would demand the same at the national level. Quite often in looking at our societies we do not make that connection.
When statements are made about leaders, for example, we have to recognize that they often apply to leadership at all levels. The leaders, workers and other operatives who function at the micro level are the ones who ultimately move to the national level, taking with them their methods of operation and thinking. Jules makes the point too that “It is the insecure leader who is uncomfortable with being challenged by others within the organization.” It is the leader, too, who has something to conceal rather than defend, for to defend is to be involved in a process. One can hardly expect that leaders exhibiting such qualities and approaches at the level of an organization will suddenly transform themselves when operating at the national level.
Without doubt, one of the things that stands out about our political culture is the hostility to the expression of differences of opinion even when claiming adherence to freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is not infinite. There are codes and laws, the law of libel, for example, that provides some limit to free speech.
In fact democracy does not mean total freedom. One of the things that a democracy, and in fact, development demands is the full involvement of people. But by extension this process lends itself to differences of opinion. Our leaders are often afraid of this, but it is one of the strengths of a democracy and is critical to development. Breaking the silence in our societies that have come out of slavery and colonialism has to be encouraged. But this is hardly ever done. Instead efforts are always made to stifle the expression of views that contradict those currently in vogue or opposed to those holding the reins of power.
Our societies have a top down approach to everything. Those, especially at the political level, assume that the mandate given to them at the polls is a mandate to dictate and force their views on the society. Of course, the argument is always that in giving them the mandate the people sanction whatever is in their manifestoes. But manifestos really provide only a broad outline and furthermore people do not vote based on manifestoes. For one, manifestoes of the different parties are quite similar. But often, also, differences arise not only about what is in the manifestoes but about other developments that have nothing to do with manifestoes and in some cases, had not even been contemplated then.
Breaking the silence will not come easy. There is too much at stake for those who capitalize on the silence and conclude that silence is a form of consent and agreement. Really we need to let ideas contend. The challenges facing us cannot be resolved by the efforts of a few, particularly those at the leadership level who benefit from the structures as they are. Facing the challenges in a globalised world will demand sacrifices on the part of all of our population. They are hardly likely to acquiesce unless they become part of the decision making and planning. Quite a lot will have to change and people need to understand why these changes are necessary. They will have to be involved and be part of those decisions. This can only come about by breaking the silence. We must, at the same time, start by protecting those who refuse to be silent.