Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Ideas meaningless without commitment

A Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D

Last week I wrote in this space about bestselling author, entrepreneur and blogger Seth Godin's ideas on how personally to foment change.

When you seek to change what is into what you want to see, you cannot expect those who subscribe to the status quo not to be upset with you. You are seeking to change the world they think is good for them. Just as still water ripples in wider and wider circles when the surface is disturbed, your good idea will reach an expanding network of like-minded individuals as each passes it along to friends and colleagues.

As Newton's first law of motion says, a body in motion tends to remain in  motion and a body at rest tends to remain at rest. Sooner or later, even those who subscribe to the status quo will begin to accommodate themselves to that new idea as more and more people see it as a better alternative to the old world.

Recall the affirmation that what stands between you and your goal is your belief that it is possible and you can do it.

In the book, "The Voice of Hope," Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi said, in her conversations with Alan Clements, since many people have been conditioned to obey without questioning the situation, she
always urges people to keep a "questing mind" -- a mind that is not just questioning but seeking answers to what is and why it is so. She asserts that when people think and look for "ways and means of doing
something," they "will" find those means. For her, a "questing mind"  helps to withstand violence or oppression, or what is contrary to what one believes is right and just. "Action comes out of thought," she

Suu Kyi, who believes every person is capable of having a questing mind, says she agrees with everything former Czech playwright and former dissident Vaclav Havel, who became the first president of the Czech Republic, had to say about the role the intellectual in society: "The intellectual should constantly disturb, should bear witness to the misery of the world, should be provocative by being independent, should rebel against
all hidden and open pressures and manipulations, should be the chief doubter of systems ... and for this reason, an intellectual cannot fit into any role that might be assigned to him ... and essentially doesn't
belong anywhere: he stands out as an irritant wherever he is."

Remember Godin, who sees in leaders men who have curiosity, ask questions and build a culture that gives people something to identify with. Leaders are leaders because they challenge the status quo and commit to working to make the change.

There was an interesting article, "The Power in 11/9," in the New York Times  last month by Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas L. Friedman. He talked about a manifestation of people power in Germany that brought down the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and united the East and the West: "Germans showed how good ideas about expanding human freedom -- amplified by people power -- can bring down a wall and an entire autocratic power structure, without a shot." And he sees the American "9/11" as "bad ideas -- amplified by a willingness of just a few people to commit suicide -- can bring down skyscrapers and tie a great country in knots."

Friedman sees the "low-grade civil war" in the Arab-Muslim world, as "bad ideas versus bad ideas amplified by violence, rather than bad ideas versus good ideas amplified by people power." There is "no true war of ideas ... just a war," in such places as Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan or Pakistan, with religious extremists fighting with state security services, while the ruling regimes don't take on "extremist ideas by offering progressive alternatives." And when the peoples in those countries take to the streets, Friedman wrote, they usually do so to demonstrate against another people "rather than to unify their own
ranks around good ideas."

Friedman's concluding remarks: "Where there is people power wedded to progressive ideas, there is hope -- and American power can help. Where there is people power harnessed to bad ideas, there is danger. Where there is no people power and only bad ideas, there will be no happy endings."

Not long ago, my niece e-mailed me to ask if I really believe ideas can be so powerful they can bring down a dictator. My answer was an absolute yes, but ideas are meaningless unless they are put into action with
energy and commitment by those who want to make the change. Collective action is required for mutual benefit. All that's needed is the spark.

The trouble is while many see the goal as desirable, not everyone is willing to chip in to work toward a goal, but expects others to do something about it.

I cannot find a better quote -- and I quote because the words quoted are so inspirational they can move the earth under our feet, and I can never hope to say it better in my own words -- than the one by civil
right activist Martin Luther King Jr., when he pleaded with African-Americans not to remain still but to do something, anything:

"If you can't fly, run. If you can't run, walk. If you can't walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving."

A Khmer proverb goes: A curved wood can make wheel, a straight wood, a spoke, and the wood that is twisting and crooked can make firewood.

No one is without usefulness.

A Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam, where
he taught political science for 13 years. Write him at


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