Instability has undermined our value-systems
By Mehrdad Emadi-Moghadam
October 19, 1999
I read dAyi Hamid's "Persian
work ethics" which portrayed a very negative and cynical picture
of us as a nation. I found a common trend in his 'stream of consciousness'
observations in that there is a commonly held belief that as a nation or
society we have fallen to such a depth of depravity that there was no hope
of resurrection. I believe that there may be an alternative interpretation
to his observations. This alternative view is based on what I call 'incentive-compatibility'
problem. The problem arises from the fact that what is recognized as 'success'
in Iran involves behavior which as an individual, especially as a child,
we have been taught to consider unacceptable. In Iranian society, to get
ahead, we observe that those who are dishonest, lout, and fluid in terms
of their loyalties and values do better than those who are honest and show
devotion to their principals. This is not some thing specific to the revolution
though the situation has deteriorated since 1979.
Yet, at a personal level, we know that being dishonest and corrupt are
not attributes in which we can claim credit. Privately, most of us admire
the positive value of these characteristics and like to be affiliated with
them. As a nation, there is nothing intrinsic to make us less hard working
than Spaniards, Italians, the French, and yes even Germans and Japanese.
However, it is the value-system in which we are brought up and the continuous
inconsistency between what we are taught as proper behavior and the behavior
that is rewarded and perceived as success which have induced us to behave
in the manner for which we deserve some criticism.
We need to recognize that a society is more than the sum of the individuals
who live in it and the historical memory of people have a great impact
on their interaction with each other. Historically, we have had a strong
sense of instability of the society in which we live. This arises from
the lack of continuity in our environment. We know that changes in government
or regime have been the outcome of invasions, uprisings, or social unrest
out of which the incumbents have been displaced with a new group who as
a general rule have been as prone to discarding people's rights as their
predecessors. Much more importantly, each group of new arrivals has done
its best to destroy all the social, political and personal heritage of
the society hoping to erase our collective memory of our history and the
value system to which we belong.
This process has been going on for centuries and has undermined our
sense of own-identity. The overall effect of this continuous rampaging
of our social and national identity is that as a nation there have been
very few values which have held dear to all of us. Instead we have learned
to be concerned with our own interests and self-preservation. Ruler after
ruler, government after government, have left us be disillusioned with
the way in which promises have been left unfulfilled. The sense of outrage
at this intergenerational destruction of our values and beliefs have lead
us to become very cynical and untrusting of each other. The mirror image
of this has been to become abusive of other people's trust and call this
Going hand-in-hand with this behavior is our lack of confidence in ourselves
which again arises from historical observations. We know that merits and
personal efforts play little in our advancement in the society and it is
the links and networks to which one belongs that determines one's progress.
It follows that under such conditions we become slaves to the whims of
those who exert influence over us and hence we lose our sense of social
responsibilities toward each other. Compounding the problems is the fact
that since, as a rule, the rulers themselves have been interested in lining
their own pockets, we have been left to either join the 'bandits' and follow
suit or stay uncontaminated and poor (and therefore be labeled 'beeorzeh').
As for the level of our efforts, it is only normal that when efforts
are not the yardstick by which we are measured and when the rulers themselves
have been auctioning off our national interests as fast as possible and
have been running off with the booty, most people feel deeply disenchanted.
In most cases this is expressed in disrespect for one's sense of national
identity and those values affiliated with this identity.
The situation in Iran today is not different from what existed before
transition began in central and Eastern Europe, Spain, Greece, and Brazil.
Firsthand, I have seen the same type of social disrespect for values,
disenchantment, bribery, wide spread corruption, low-productivity and quota
allocation to universities in many of these countries. However, in some
cases when the transitional government has managed to introduced incentive-compatible
values which actually reward hard work and honesty, people's behavior began
to change for better for quickly. However, when the transitional government
was just a change in outfit rather than values, the situation stayed the
same and the sense of crisis continued.
A government itself can not be separated from the collective values
to which people subscribe and hold dear. Understandably and unfortunately,
the link goes both ways and hence is contingent on everyone's effort in
self-improvement. Nevertheless, the value-system upheld by the government
has to be incentive-compatible with constructive and responsible behavior.
I have hope that that once enough of us decide to push for improvement
and at the same time improve our own behavior, the collective effect of
this would leave a positive impact upon government behavior and the nature
of government in our country.
I personally am not as negative. I have seen many many times the achievement
of my compatriots and their adherence to good behavior both inside and
outside the country. I have seen how with empty hands and no resources
Iranians have made a success out of their lives and have stayed honest
and truthful to their positive values. Of course we like to work less
when efforts are not recognized or when short cuts are possible. But in
this, we are not that different than Europeans or North Americans. I have
hope that the end of this journey will bring an improvement in our lives
as a nation. Yes there are many problems but none that could not be overcome.
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