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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Monday, 5 January 2015

The Straw Father

Every cause needs an enemy; that's common wisdom.  Whether it's a political party or ISIL, there has to be a threatening bad guy to motivate the troops.  Even in faith, there is the devil; why else would you evangelize if not to save souls from the clutches of paganism?
When you're fighting a war, a solid villain helps motivate troops to put their lives on the line.  Ideology can help, too, but that's more about creating a world that benefits you, but not so much as it benefits the top of whatever hierarchy you're serving (and there is always one).
In many cases, though, the enemy isn't all that threatening.  Sides have to exaggerate the evils of their opponents to effectively cast them as the devil.  Rank and file might buy in to the soundbites, because they're emotionally gratifying and provide membership in a group, but these are the front-line soldiers.  They will shoot and take bullets, or canvass and lit-drop. 
Theoretically, capitalism has done away with the need for enemies as motivation - it's money, title and the corner office that are supposed to motivate individuals now.  The more and better they do as individual actors for the collective, the more they grow in wealth and position. 
Which isn't how it works out in practice.  Instead, the "individual actors" get very good at putting themselves ahead of the well-being of the whole, resulting in inefficiencies, down-loaded responsibility and eventual system failure.
So - how do you motivate the creative, the strategists, the people who can identify and see through the spin to consciously and personally sacrifice for the cause?
Basic behavioural economics suggests we are primarily motivated by two things - what we can gain, and what we have to lose.  Despite the "no pain no gain" rhetoric, if you're getting things, the idea of sacrificing something you already have doesn't have appeal.  What motivates people to put everything on the line is the desire to combat loss.
We're back to needing an enemy.
If you recognize that The Other is human and has human weaknesses, they are insufficient as a foe.  Especially when their actions do not directly challenge your own life, you're motivation to act is limited. 
How many Wall Street lawyers have signed up to go fight ISIL?  Exactly.  They don't feel their lives or way of life is really at stake - despite 9/11, it's still all an over there problem.
So who makes for a motivational foe to muster those who reject partisan lenses?
The answer is fascinating, and perhaps a bit frightening.
When loss is the key driver and external actors are insufficient to present a strong enough threat to catalyze sacrifice on the part of your smartest, most strategic players, you need to change gears and look internally.
There is probably no more traumatic experience for a child than to realize their parents are not god, that they are fallible and even petty in their aspirations.  We're trained to believe "father knows best" and default on the side of authority, confident authority.
When the veneer wears off, though - when the confidence is revealed as bluster and the "knows best" is recognized as spin, we realize just how rudderless we are, and they are. 
If you see yourself as an actor, not an audience member, this will not do.  Especially when you recognize the landscape and emerging perils that are missed by your Stern Father (whether they themselves see the threats or not) it becomes awfully difficult to sit back and wait for avoidable catastrophe to happen.
There's a lesson in this that has been learned before, but not by those who need to recognize it the most.
Which is kinda the point.

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