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Morality through the eyes of chief rabbi

I have been reading an amazing book by an amazing man. The title of the 2020 book is Morality – Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times and its author is Jonathan Sacks. Sacks rose to become the Chief Rabbi of Britain, and was known as one of the country’s leading public intellectuals.

He was knighted in 2005, and was later awarded a lordship. Lord Sacks died in November 2020, the year in which his last book was published. His first rabbinical appointment was at the Golders Green Synagogue in North West London, just a few miles from where I was brought up. He was appointed there in 1978, a year after I moved to Kenya, but I have since heard him speak on BBC – which was always very rewarding.

His morality book is so consistently informative and thought provoking that I felt like quoting every other sentence. In it he worries about the current unfortunate move from “We” to “I” in the West, with liberal democracy threatened by the demagoguery of populism (as personified by Trump’s election in America and the Brexit battle in Britain). Public discourse has grown toxic; family life has been breaking down, and drug abuse and depression are on the rise, particularly among youth.

The book takes us back to how morality has looked from the time of the hunter-gatherers to the philosophers of ancient Greece and through the subsequent centuries until today. His gloomy contemporary analysis relates in particular to Britain and the US, but as soon as I saw his distinctions between the “We” and the “I” I immediately thought of Ubuntu as capturing the spirit of the former and of our Kenyan scenario as reflecting too much of the latter.

Relative to those in many other African countries we Kenyans tend to be more individualistic, materialistic and aggressively competitive, and our politics reflect the same never-ending zero-sum squabbles as Sacks writes about in his world. It’s why despite him never referring to Ubuntu or to Africa more generally, so much of what he describes is as relevant for us as it is for his Western readers.

He traces today’s crisis to our loss of a strong, shared moral code and to our promotion of self-interest over the common good. We have “outsourced” morality to the market and the state, he complains, but neither is capable of showing us how to live. Sacks shows that “there is no liberty without morality and no freedom without responsibility,” arguing that we all must play our part in rebuilding a common moral foundation.

He comes down really hard on the liberal revolution of the 1960s, the “Swinging Sixties” of my youth, which championed individual freedoms over traditional values. It was the time of “free love”, the time when smoking marihuana became all the rage. For many, life was all about self-indulgence and instant gratification, about rights over responsibilities.

He also blames the deregulation of the 1980s that defined the economics of Thatcherism and Reaganomics; and the austerity policies that followed the financial crisis of 2008. All this has led to increasing inequality, with many being left behind.

Sacks shows how the “culture climate change” of migrating from “We” to “I” has seriously undermined the moral foundations that once held us together, and it is what led to many of the societal problems with which we are grappling in this 21st century.

So is there hope for a future with a stronger moral underpinning? For the late Chief Rabbi the answer, as it always has been, is to work from the bottom up, through the family and the community, through small groupings where the blight of urban and national anonymity is absent.

He recognises the higher levels of morality shown to be displayed by those who regularly attend places of worship, and by those who are active in voluntary organisations. And he emphasises the vital importance of building high-trust relationships, not least in business – the contemporary idea that one can simultaneously do well and good.

There’s some talk in Kenya about living our national values and developing a national ethos, including in the BBI. But there’s woefully little on that from our leaders. So it’s up to us, you and me. In our families, in our communities and in our workplaces; in our places of worship and where we volunteer.

Beliefs that can keep you stuck in a maze

Many of you are familiar with that wonderful fable by Dr. Spencer Johnson, Who Moved My Cheese?, which was published in 1998 and has since sold nearly 30 million copies – having been translated into over 40 languages.

The book told the story of two mice, Sniff and Scurry, and two LittlePeople, Hem and Haw, who were faced with a declining supply of the previously permanently available cheese in the dark maze where they lived. While the mice swiftly accepted the realities of the new situation and boldly went off along the maze’s winding corridors and blind alleys in search of more sources, Hem and Haw refused to accept the need for change, assuming the supply of cheese would resume.

Haw eventually ventured beyond his comfort zone, at first reluctantly and timidly, but gradually more confidently, in a successful quest for new supplies. What happened to Hem though, who remained all alone in his denial, lost and distraught? Did he starve to death? Or did he finally decide to accept the need to change and join the hunt for new cheese?

Now we know, for in 2018 a follow- up book by Spencer Johnson, Out of the Maze, appeared – the year after he succumbed to cancer and passed away. In this little book (it only takes about an hour to read) we follow Hem and his new lady friend, Hope, on their journey to find a way out of the maze.

Let me not spoil how the story develops, so let me just explain that Spencer builds the message of this fable around the need for positive “beliefs”, like: don’t assume you can only eat cheese, as an apple can be tasty too. And when there may be no more of them either you have to choose other new foods, other beliefs.

To make the point with clarity and impact, the book includes periodic full-page “ads” to nudge us into helpful beliefs, including a final cumulative one that reads: Notice your beliefs, Don’t believe everything you think, Let go of what isn’t working, Look outside the maze, Choose a new belief, There are no limits to what you can believe.

All around us, every day, we observe how enabling or disabling beliefs can be. Just think of ones that brought down some of the most prominent companies in the world, such as Kodak, Nokia and BlackBerry, who held on to the erroneous belief that the future would be like the past.

And at the personal level, what about all those workers whose jobs are being replaced by technology, or at least where their survival depends on acquiring robust digital skills? Will they ignore the need to transform themselves, or act like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand so as to avoid what it wouldn’t wish to see?

As I was listening recently to one of the Democratic candidates for the US presidency, I was struck by the story he told of pausing at a truck-stop in Iowa where he engaged with some of the drivers while campaigning. But he said he didn’t dare ask any of them what thought they had given to the fact that their jobs would disappear when driverless vehicles start taking over… for fear they would punch him in the face! Now that’s holding on to beliefs that will condemn them to becoming as obsolete as a dinosaur.

Johnson’s powerful theme is that all of your accomplishments, all of your failures, are due to your beliefs: Whether you’re confident or insecure, cynical or positive, open-minded or inflexible. Of course it’s awfully difficult, so inconvenient, to change your beliefs. But unless you reflect on ours – and as leaders on those of the people around you – beware of remaining stuck in your maze. As you examine your beliefs, hopefully a good many of them will merely be validated and reinforced. But where they need to be replaced, prepare to expand your comfort zone. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Just like reading (or rereading) Who Moved my Cheese? is a must. In this VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world, carry them with you and keep challenging yourself. Every day.