The power of example


Nic Hoffmann from Louis Trichardt, writes:

Of the many things we have learnt from social media and their ubiquitous presence in our lives, few truths hit home as hard as the power of example. Anyone who needs an illustration of this just needs to look on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or whichever social medium is their poison of choice, where people love putting up examples of other people’s misdeeds and transgressions without a twinge of conscience. But first, some background.

In the past few days, and possibly for many days to come, we have been and will be confronted with the sad reality that our world is no longer the same. Like a tsunami that sweeps away anything and everything in its path, COVID-19 has rushed into our lives and not only upset the applecart but just about destroyed it as well as the apple orchard and the workshop where a new applecart can be built. For all practical purposes, the world’s economy is a ship called Titanic and its iceberg bears the name Corona.

Heaven knows how we would have coped with the pandemic if we did not have social media. The telephone lines would have melted, carrier pigeons would have exhausted themselves traversing the continent and smoke signals would have left an even bigger hole in the ozone as we would have made frantic efforts to communicate with each other. In this day and age, however, we can spend our time online at home while lounging around in our pyjamas and observing humanity at its worst. Especially when people spread lies, half-truths or unverified information indiscriminately, thereby causing unnecessary anxiety and, in some cases, even panic. Such behaviour can have far-reaching consequences, especially among people who are ignorant or uninformed.

Why all this negativity, you might well ask. Have I no faith in the innate goodness of mankind? Does the term ubuntu mean nothing to me? Have I never seen how good people step up and do what needs to be done in the face of adversity? Is the saying “Cometh the hour, cometh the man” a product of some deluded fool’s propensity for naïve optimism?

Well, I find it just a bit hard not to be cynical when I look around me and observe the behaviour of my countrymen and, to my everlasting shame, my own. In essence, we are selfish, arrogant animals with our own comfort and wellbeing as our biggest priority. Yes, we sometimes make an effort to be altruistic and occasionally succeed in deluding ourselves that we are not as bad as some people – those others who flaunt the rules and behave like total assholes while driving, shopping, watching a movie, eating out or working alongside us, aggravating us and the rest of humanity no end. What we neglect to do (and please note that I do not use the word “fail” here, since that implies a measure of guiltlessness), however, is to see ourselves as we really are. We cannot talk about “us” and “them” as if what we do is any different from what anybody and everybody else does.

How so? Let me take myself as example (poor example that I am, regardless of what my mother thought of me as her baby) in this time of social upheaval. I fully understand the need for social distancing and isolation to reduce the risk of infection. I agree with all the calls for staying at home and not making unnecessary trips anywhere, regardless of how much this inconveniences me and my need for gregarious interaction with my fellow man (and woman).

BUT, what happens if I need something urgently: dog or cat food (cannot let them starve); gas (the stove/braai cannot function without it); washing powder (Surf is my brand, man); meat/biltong (no explanation needed); milk (doing lots of baking and cooking to keep busy and feed the family); loo paper (no explanation needed); batteries (never know when Eskom strikes again); soap and sanitiser (no explanation needed); sugar (essential for baking and I refuse to drink bitter coffee or tea) … the list goes on. Fact is, I can come up with umpteen excuses why I quickly need to pop into town.

Which brings me to the point of this whole epistle: What kind of an example are we setting for others? We all know (hopefully) that we learn from the example set by others. When they are young, we teach our children to do as we say and not to do as we do. (That in itself tells us something about ourselves – the fact that what we do and say do not necessarily coincide, and we know that.) However, we continue to expect others to obey the rules while finding excuse after excuse why we should be allowed to be the exception. Just think a bit – if you swear (I do), you have a good reason (some idiot drove in front of you, nearly caused an accident, does not know in how much of a hurry you are, does not understand how a traffic circle works, refuses to make room to let you pass, must be blind not to see the stop sign, etc.) If everyone is supposed to stay home to help fight against the coronavirus (I do, mostly), my reason for going to town is definitely more important than anybody else’s (see previous paragraph).

If we think that only children learn by the example set by others, think again, dear reader! If we see someone ignoring a rule/regulation/law/prohibition, our first instinct is NOT usually to obey said rule/regulation/law/prohibition. NO, our first thought is usually: “If that idiot can get away with it, why shouldn’t I?” or “Why should that idiot be allowed to get away with it?” while entertaining all sorts of vengeful, retaliatory thoughts. Or, yes but my need to do this is very great and I should therefore be allowed to do it? Is that not human nature? And before you know it, you are seriously considering doing that exact same thing. How many times have you thought about the fact that you are guilty of the same kind of behaviour while blissfully or deliberately ignoring what you know to be the right thing? Skipping the stop street while staring straight in front of you, just in case someone is approaching from the left or right? Pretending not to see the driver patiently waiting for someone to vacate that parking space you want?

Someone wise – I forget who – once said that how civilised we are depends on the extent to which we can ignore and overcome our baser instincts, i.e. how successful we are in not succumbing to our first instinctive urges when faced with a situation (very often an unpleasant one that places us in conflict with others, nature, the world, society, etc.). That is the very reason, dear reader, that I am sometimes driven to despair and cynical thoughts about the human condition.