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Working Towards an Innovation Society

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Working Towards an Innovation Society

By Montasser Ghachem

The Tunisian Revolution was a golden opportunity for us, Tunisians, to reflect on our society and ask ourselves: Are we doing everything we can to be an innovative society? Are we properly using our human resources to drive social and economic prosperity? Unfortunately the answer to these questions is no! Our culture still suffers from flaws that substantially impede our progress and squander valuable human resources.

¢ We do not value precision: Precisely defined concepts substantially aid efficient and fast human interaction, which in turn drives economic and social prosperity and the creation of knowledge. In Tunisia, most of the concepts we use are foggy, ill-defined and lack consensus. Ask people in the street about the definition of Islam, science, love, respect or freedom; the chances of receiving two similar answers are very low. This imprecision creates stalemates in debates, impedes the communication of experiences and knowledge, slows down economic transactions and amplifies social and political disagreements.

¢ We do not value moderation: Any moderate or revised opinion betrays, in the eyes of society, a moral flaw, a weakness of character or indecisiveness. This negative attitude leads to extreme, obstinate positions such as complete submission to parents, to the mainstream understanding of religion, unrestrained love of one's partner, a friend-or-foe approach to human relationships and a stubborn refusal to recognize mistakes. These behaviors drain much of the energy of our youth, impede the smoothness of their interactions, restrain their flexibility and curtail their freedom and consequently their ability to think, share and create.

¢ We do not approach life scientifically: Studying correlations between events allows us to uncover plausible cause-effect relationships, enabling us to control the causes and thus produce desirable effects for ourselves and society. This is unfortunately not how we approach life. Emotional responses to life events are the norm. When hurt, we become defensive and unwilling to look at the proper causes. We prefer to hold others responsible for what happens to us, and in the absence of someone to blame, we outsource the mistake to fate or God's will. This culture is due mainly to the lack of development of reason and the heavy punishment of failure.

¢ We lack foresight and flexibility: The world is complex, overwhelming and constantly changing. In order to feel safe, we devise models to help us understand what has happened and predict what is to come. Successful models have two features: high predictive power and flexibility. Unfortunately, models in Tunisia lack predictive power, being based on a romantic, unscientific or simplistic view of human nature (e.g. an idealistic conception of love). Some models are inflexible, being dogmatic and pretending to have definitive stands on issues (e.g. considering man-made opinions holy). These models stem from static, inherited and unchallenged conceptions of nature, man, fate, morality and metaphysics. In an ever-changing world, models should be kept only as long as the evidence supports them; if contradictions arise, these models should be repaired, refined or replaced.

¢ Love is important, but what is it? Love plays a major role in our lives. Given its importance, a systematic approach to love is needed to help us understand what love amounts to, how to deal with it and how to harness its power to positive ends. Our education system unfortunately does not tackle this problem properly. Society consequently incurs major losses due to emotional distress, broken relationships and unhealthy individuals. We need to sensitize our youth to a more scientific view of human drives, to what love is, what role instincts play, and the challenges successful relationships must face.

¢ Towards a more direct and honest opinion: Tunisian culture uses the indirect approach in expressing dissatisfaction and in solving conflicts, a logical response to the emotionally negative attitudes people have towards criticism and confrontation. This indirectness, though, means there is a lack of proper feedback about flaws or mistakes, delaying the correction of possibly faulty behavior. Germans are well-known to be direct and honest in their opinions, an attitude that might be behind the legendary economic efficiency of Germany.

¢ Understanding society, driving change: In Europe and the USA, youths are exposed at an early age to society and all of its social and economic spheres through training, business competition and social work. The understanding they gain helps them master how to start a company, implement an idea or induce social and political change. Learning by doing is a common motto among individuals in the western world. In Tunisia, society is still a black box for most. Understanding social, legal and economic mechanisms is still the privilege of the few. Consequently, instead of a systematic, strategic and hands-off approach to change and management, we find hesitation, an all-or-nothing or now-or-never approach, a lack of strategic thinking, and timidity in meeting the actual economic and social forces. Through the development of social sciences, we can educate our citizens about the major political, economic and social forces, increase, through training, their ability to anticipate and adapt to social and legal change, and invest in managerial and soft skills. Thereby, we can eradicate the idealistic belief in instant success and replace it with a strategic, rational approach to social, economic and political change.

With its young population, reasonably solid education system and extensive cultural exchange with the western world, Tunisia has considerable potential to develop an innovative society and dynamic culture that would preserve its cultural heritage and identity without foregoing the benefits of more efficient institutions and entrepreneurial spirit. Some flaws, however, obstruct the achievement of this goal. Concerned authorities must be motivated to effect the social engineering required to create a more prosperous society.
Montasser Ghachem is a researcher in Economics, currently visiting Harvard University. His research interests are theoretical, and cover mainly the evolution of culture, the role of punishment in the preservation of cooperation in society and the importance of social structure in promoting economic efficiency.

  • W.

    You’re entitled to your opinion, Mr Ghachem, but I don’t agree with you at all. I’d say Tunisians actually value moderation and consensus more than most other nationalities. Sometimes we value consensus too much.

  • Kusaila

    self-criticism is a first healthy step towards real reform. To add to the list of the flaws so typical of the Tunisian culture, is this notion of disrespect for compliance with the “law”, best captured by the expression “salakha”, meaning he pulled it off, denoting a culture that promotes ad-hock ness and one that celebrates outsmarting the system.

    • USA Kusaila

      I think self awareness and self analysis, instead of self criticism, may be the key. Focus on your strengths matched to your needs in order to move forward.

      • I totally agree with your first point of self-analysis! Self-awareness and self-analysis without torturing ourselves over our flaws is definitely the key. However, focusing on strengths seems to me a very utilitarian attitude. To focus on your strengths reinforce our path-dependence in the sense that we can only become good at what our ancestors were good at. This attitude has definitely its short-term advantages but will not allow us to build a healthy society in the long-run. We should always keep in mind that a culture could perish from its own excesses. See the western culture and its obsession with rationality and technology or most other culture which are endowed with very little if any rationality. The malaise could be felt in both, with my very modest article, I try to push more towards moderation.

  • Truthteller

    RE: Your comment on precision…I think you are trying to create a society of robots. No one is going to or should agree on the definition of love, etc. Such consensus stifles creativity. A major issue to work on is accountability: demanding it of the government and of ourselves. Accepting mistakes and taking responsibility, regardless of the consequences, not blaming anyone for what happens unless and until we examine our part in it FIRST is key. Add to this thinking of the public as a cooperative public, not “al-nas” and taking care of public areas.

  • Adel Gharsallah

    A plausible analysis of Mr M. Ghachem of the Tunisian attitudes to life, love, politics and all that goes on within a socially torn apart society. Indeed consensus is absent and accountability is an unknown concept by the majority of Tunisians irrespective of their educational backgrounds. One other lack of fit in our Tunisian society which has not been touched upon in this solid self-criticism piece is the absence of RESPECT in all walks of life! Respect for life, love, women, men, children, animals, laws, and above all respect for others regardless of their social, religious or political affiliations!
    Mr Ghachems’s article should be published in Arabic too so that more Tunisians woul be able to reflect upon their own flaws.

  • Soufax

    Being an outsider I would agree with most of what Montasser Ghachem wrote. However it should be noted the degree to which society as a whole reflects these observations. What was said can be true in other countries but not necessarily as pervasive as here. Change is inevitable but what is the motive behind change. In Tunisia money & power have been the driving force behind change, leaving little room for other factors. Now that there has been a shift in the holders of power opportunity is knocking at the doorm but will the door be opened?

  • Mokhtar

    Salem. Great article. Tunisian society as any other society has its own flaws, but these flaws stem mainly from a crippling dictatorship which lasted for more than a half century. The burden now is removed and the boon of freedom if well harnessed will unleash creativity, innovation and ingenuity of Tunisian people. The revolution has provided for us a golden opportunity to be free and to build an institutional society.
    The key here is freedom because without it nothing can be achieved; it may take a while before things settle down, but we have to preserve it (freedom) no matter what the consequences are. Salem

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