Swimming naked (when the tide has gone out!)
Is it time to rediscover values?
23 March 2010, by Tracey Swanepoel
JOHANNESBURG - Do you ever wonder what world leaders talk about when they get behind closed doors?
By all reports just a few weeks ago at the World Economic Forum in Davos they were talking about "swimming naked".
"Swimming naked" refers to a much-quoted Warren "Buffettism" ...."You only find out who has been swimming naked when the tide has gone out".
A key theme at Davos this year was the extent to which the wrong values or no values at all had played a role in the tide going out - the current global economic crisis.
Whereas Davos 2009 was dominated by the question of: "When will this crisis be over?" (CNN actually had a whiteboard on which each CEO could write his/her view on when the economic crisis would finally end), this year the question had evolved to "how will this crisis change us?"
Discussions about values that previously had respectable sidebar status at Davos suddenly became mainstream, packed to the rafters and attended by global business leaders and politicians.
This issue is as relevant to us locally (perhaps even more so) as it is globally. I believe that before we put our swimsuits back on, we need to take a good hard look at our naked selves and societies (aaargh!). In 1925 Mahatma Gandhi outlined a simple yet profound social values framework. He called it the Seven Deadly Social sins:
- Politics without principle
- Wealth without work
- Commerce without morality
- Pleasure without conscience
- Education without character
- Science without humanity
- Worship without sacrifice
So what do we look like naked?
- Call me a prude but I think our "politics without principle" may be showing. The current debate concerning the moral values of our politicians and whether they are entitled to powerful positions that co-exist peacefully alongside dodgy private lives is a case in point.
- Perhaps we have a bit of an "education without character" boep. We take pride in using our smarts to undermine the system. It's about what we are clever enough to get away with isn't it (if we can bribe the speed cop, evade the receiver - then bully for us)? What we don't realise is that relying on the law to maintain a civilised society is in fact the last line of defense. As US author Todd Christofferson puts it, "our increased reliance on laws to regulate behaviour shows just how uncivilised we have become".
- Then there are some quite substantial "wealth without work" warts. I'm not a raving communist at all but I do question the model wherein the funding facilitators (usually the banks) make quantums more than the wealth creators they lend the money to (or whose money they put at risk). Then there's the big question about appropriate reward - a good day's pay for a good day's work. Being a CEO is daunting and challenging and one needs a unique set of skills and guts to be successful. Having said all of that, is the right ratio that he/she earns more than 1 000 times what his average employee earns? Finally, the idea that we can just sit back and expect phenomenal returns (which did materialise, an average of 30% year on year in the US during 1999-2007) is just too good to be sustainably true. And if it sounds too good to be true, common sense says it usually is.
- What about the "commerce without morality" and "science without humanity" rashes (on the lower back - usually covered by a conventional swimsuit!)? We don't like to think that the sexy brand (or grade A brand copy) was manufactured by child labour in a hideous sweatshop, in inhuman conditions. Do we really need to bother about whether the latest wrinkle reducing face cream was tested on a bunch of suffering vermin? At a macro level it's sad that the common good is not nearly enough to get countries to put aside self-interest (think Copenhagen).
- Pleasure without conscience? Those scars run deep. While we are making great strides in terms of the treatment of HIV/Aids, prevention campaigns continue to fail dismally. Celebrity role models and their wild antics clearly convey that hedonism triumphs over responsibility every time.
- Worship without sacrifice? Quite frankly that's our embarrassing "living the good life" layer of flab, in plain sight.
How do we get back in shape?
Jim Wallis, chair of the Davos values panel and author of Rediscovering Values points out that the worst we could do right now is "go back to normal". Instead we need to create a whole new normal. To do this we need to change the questions that have fundamentally driven our societies.
We need to stop asking:
- What's the fastest way to make money?
- Beat my co-worker?
- Get a bigger, better, faster car than the neighbours?
- What could we BUY that would make us truly happy?
- What's wrong with us (too old, too fat, too tired, too unfit, too wrinkly?) and what product could instantly fix us up into a better version of ourselves?
The scaremongering implicit in the above, means that we live in a perpetual state of fear and need.... at best a rickety foundation for values.
We need to start talking about the right stuff. For me that includes honesty, respect and the common good. For you it might be very different. The point is that we begin these conversations with friends, family and colleagues. It's much more interesting than the fancy new car that money can't buy (anymore) or the Botox that erases every visible sign of happiness.
Read published article on MoneyWeb site