What does the word ‘plastic’ mean to you? Cheap, colourful toys? Credit cards? Something fake?
It’s hard to see why I might exhort anyone to be any of those things. But plasticity is also the ability to take on a new shape in response to external forces. I’ve talked about this being an important characteristic for companies and organisations. I think it’s increasingly a critical quality for people.
We talk about resilience for people a lot. The ability to take pressure and rebound. But what if your resistance to that pressure is more damaging than accepting it?
I’m not arguing for unquestioning acquiescence. Nor against a level of conservatism: every change should meet resistance and challenge. Its value should be questioned and tested. But as far as possible, this testing should be objective. Certainly more divorced than it is currently from our tendency to cling to what we have, or what we think we know.
The Descent of Man
I’ve been reading (rather belatedly) Grayson Perry’s ‘The Descent of Man’ over Christmas. In it, he makes the point that much of our view of what is ‘right’ and rational is coloured by the perspective of the ‘Default Man’ — straight, white, middle-class.
Many people — mostly fitting this description — find it hard to accept this is true. They see it as a personal attack and worry that their position will be undermined by attempts to change it. You can argue that elements of the Trump and Brexit votes were both reactions to such attempts.
But as Perry also argues, for many there is much to be gained by accepting that the perspective they have held to may no longer be correct, if it ever was. It’s a hard thing to let go of closely-held truths. But is it any harder than the damage done by holding to them? The clearest victims of the Trump administration and the UK’s exit from the EU will be many people who campaigned for them.
War on Christmas
When we hold on to certain beliefs strongly, we tend to believe they are immutable laws of nature, whether they are gender differences, political truths or faith in the power of markets. What we often miss is how relatively recent these ideas really are, and how little it would mean, in the grand scheme of history, to leave them behind.
There is no time of year better than Christmas to consider this. When those of a particular persuasion are fighting against a wholly fake ‘war on Christmas’, few of them realising that our Christmas traditions are perhaps less than a century old. They are modern inventions, as much about marketing as religion, and even the religious traditions are a relatively recent (in historical terms) appropriation of pagan rituals.
This doesn’t mean I don’t love Christmas — I do with all my heart — but I accept it for what it is. I know that it has changed radically over the last hundred years and will continue to change radically over the next hundred.
Age of acceleration
Anyone who has seen me speak will likely have heard me paraphrase something I heard Professor Ian Morris say in a guest lecture once: “Change is accelerated when civilisations collide.” Combine this with the conclusions of Parag Khanna’s Connectography, showing just how hyper-connected all global civilisations are today, and we should not be surprised at the accelerated rate of change.
New ideas abound. Other people’s beliefs and traditions flow around us. We should hold on to what is best of our own beliefs but always be willing to weigh them against the challengers. To extract ourselves as best we can from our own comfortable prejudices and consider the options with the most objectivity we can muster.