Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Principled conviction can win out

This is the second in a two-part series on lessons from the Middle East.

After 30 years of authoritarian rule, Egypt’s Mubarak was finally ousted from power in a popular uprising. Once the darling of the West, the former president quickly descended into global ignominy after the emperor’s clothes had been stripped off and he and his cronies revealed for what they were: abusers of power and defenders of the indefensible. Out of this struggle, the Egyptian people boldly asserted two characteristics that no doubt played critical roles in their success: Courage and principled conviction. We can learn from this.

For two weeks their collective courage was revealed to the world. As they reacted, rallied, and reclaimed their voices they demanded change for their country. Through their very presence they embodied the mantra Barack Obama adopted on the presidential campaign trail: “Yes, we can.” Bermuda needs more of this courage. Too often people who care about making change here are dissuaded by the nature of political discourse in small societies; there is an unfortunate tendency for the political to become personal, the ad hominem argument a poor substitute for rational, fact-based dialogue. Justice Stephen Tumim pointed to this in his 1992 report on our criminal justice system when he mentioned the fear of speaking out.

This fear is compounded by the plethora of anonymous commentary designed to influence and sometimes, one suspects, to inflame debate. With such commentary, it takes little courage to make assertions without foundation; to attack an individual than confront the argument; or to question motives simply because the issues raised create discomfort. Indeed, if motives are to be questioned it has to be those who carry on a war of words through stealth. We will make progress in dealing with our issues when people have the courage to address them openly.

The principled conviction of the Egyptian cause, most dramatically illustrated in Tahrir Square, was resolute and clear. Their goal was the removal of President Mubarak from office. Understanding their plight better than any leader in the West, they knew Mubarak’s departure was a precondition for the rebuilding of their state. When the Friday deadline set by the people for his departure came and Mubarak had not gone the people persevered. Through their singularity of purpose and the principled stand taken the disparate groups lent their collective voice for a new government, immediately. Their actions were built on a foundation of non-violence, acceptance of all who opposed Mubarak and mutual assistance.

Leading by principled convictions requires clarity of thought, it requires clarity of outcome and it requires your actions be guided by a principled code of conduct. Applying this to Bermuda, how much better would our labour-management relations be if all parties consistently embraced such convictions? How better would our political landscape be if all parties demonstrated principled conviction in dealing with issues rather than a preoccupation with the sound bite, theatrics and what some call “politricks.” Democracies work best when differing views intersect, when one challenges the other. Out of this intersection, we collectively should come to a better understanding; in an ideal world it will also mean better policy, no matter what the area.

As one who rejects the notion of Bermuda exceptionalism, I argue that despite our unique history and the nuances of our political environment we can move to a place where greater courage is shown in public life and the fear of personal retribution abated; I further argue we have the capacity to adopt principled convictions as our modus operandi in politics, in business and in our social interactions.

Far-fetched for some, perhaps. But I embrace the revolutionary spirit of John Lennon and will end with his words: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

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