Chris Roper

Resisting change

2009-06-24 11:21

Change. We all resist it, unless we're begging on a street corner. Mind you, even then we prefer notes. And when you're talking environmental change, you're not talking banknotes - you're talking "Note to self: must save world. Tomorrow."

There's something hardwired into human beings that makes most of them highly averse to change of any kind. Inertia is the 8th deadly sin. Having said that, it's also a virtue, like faith. If you have inertia, you can not move mountains, a skill that comes in very handy if you're a Capetonian, who often spend days at a time lying on a beach not moving mountains.

These no doubt highly interesting musings of mine were prompted by an article by George Monbiot called "Any real effort on climate change will hurt. Start with the easy bits: war toys" (the man writes great columns, but terrible headlines), and by the comments section on a story about Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. I'll get to the Monbiot bit later, but let's start with M T-M.

Apparently - and I have no reason to disbelieve the Cape Argus - "Stop hunting me. Just leave me alone and give me my peace of mind," Tshabalala-Msimang - now a backbench ANC MP - screeched banshee-like yesterday when asked to comment on reports that a nurse was to be extradited to stand trial." (Alright, the actual verb was "demanded".)

Quite why suspected criminals deserve peace of mind, I'm not sure. This could be a vital clue as to why our government is relatively poor at fighting crime and corruption. If this country was a movie, it'd be a cross between Dude, where's my car? and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

A backbench MP

But perhaps that's what being a backbench Member of Parliament means - someone who has semi-retired from a useful life of backhanded payments, and now gets to sit on a park bench reminiscing about the good old days, and not be bothered.

A comment from the catchily named "Leave Manto alone PLEASE!!!" backs up this idea of South Africans preferring to leave the status quo alone. He or she writes on the IOL message board:

"People of uMzansi... why don't we just "let the lying dogs lie?" This is so yesterday... I feel & am convinced the media is way out of line to still pursue this issue... it's so old news!!! There are pressing issues they should rather concentrate on & leave the poor woman alone... just an opinion..."

(As an aside, when someone writes "just an opinion", they mean "I know I'm saying something stupid, but it's MY stupidity, so leave me alone." In general, it's best to avoid this kind of discursive honesty.)

It seems that, besides being caught with his hand in the exclamation mark jar, "Leave Manto alone PLEASE!!!" has a lot in common with our president, who has proposed that the punishment for dictators who bleed their countries dry should be that they get to keep the money and retire to a marble backbench somewhere. And as a South African, I'm tempted to agree with them. Changing the way things are is just too much effort. Far easier to move on to the next dictator or garlic fetishist, and see if we can't do something about them.

In Monbiot's column on The Guardian, he writes: "Our resistance to change is not peculiar to environmental issues. Even when confronted by crisis, we try to stick to the script. As the coaching theorist David Rock and the research psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz note, just one in nine people who have had coronary bypass surgery take their doctor's advice to lose weight and exercise more. Part of the problem, they show, is that confronting change means making use of parts of the brain which require more energy to engage."

Worth making the effort

Monbiot is using this example to make the point that people will resist taking radical action to avert environmental disaster, until they have no choice, whereupon it will have no effect.

And it's an incredible statistic. You've been given a new heart, and you still can't be bothered to change your lifestyle for the better. And that can serve as a metaphor for our new presidency, perhaps. We've changed our heart, and we really should work at changing our lifestyle too. If that means we have to make an effort to pursue, uh, let's call them "compromised politicians of the last dispensation," then it's probably worth making the effort.

Sure, it's probably going to be a politically motivated attempt, as the DA (new motto: Stop some crimes now, and ignore the rest") have pointed out with regards to Tshabalala Msimang. But from where I'm sitting, the more rigorous we are about keeping MPs in line, the less likely we are to end up like the UK. And they've still got a queen there, you know - talk about resisting change.

Chris Roper blogs on Follow me on Twitter @ChrisRoperZA.

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