I used to be a perfectionist, but I now realise that it is the plague of modern lifeby / June 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in June 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
There is something about the criticism of Nato bombing in Serbia which strikes an odd note. It is not that the critics are necessarily “wrong,” or that the Nato action is “right.” It is the feeling of a mismatch: that they are criticising the wrong war.
If one thing is clear about the Kosovo affair, it is that we have entered new and uncharted territory and are making policy as we go along. Yet most of the critics of the Nato action are certain that the government, Nato, Washington or the “west” are wrong. Harold Pinter’s recent burblings on Newsnight, telling us that this was another Vietnam, was just the most grotesque example.
These issues have already been debated at the level of politics and strategy. But what interests me is the more submerged level of feelings and expectations. There is a state of mind-I know because I used to share it-which invites permanent disappointment by always seeking perfection.
Hence, the Nato action is all wrong because there have been mistakes, in tactics, strategy and bombing accuracy. Or nothing should be done because the west did not intervene in Rwanda or East Timor, and it is therefore hypocritical to do so in Kosovo. Of course, when it did nothing, the west was attacked for failing to protect the defenceless. Whatever the policy or outcome, it is all the west’s fault.
After a while, you begin to suspect that nothing the “authorities” do will ever be right. They are like embarrassing parents in front of a tantrum throwing teenager: it’s not fair; you’re awful; you didn’t let me stay out late; you never this; you always that…
This attitude is seeping into too many arguments-in public and private life: why bother with marriage when it might end in divorce? Why try to define an ethical foreign policy, when there are inconsistencies? Why trust any profession, when some of its practitioners have erred?
While conducting an interview for the Mindfield debate book series, I encountered an interesting analysis of this perfection problem from the psychotherapist Andrew Samuels. He was elaborating on his concept of the “good-enough leader,” which is itself derived from Donald Winnicott’s concept of the “good-enough mother.” Winnicott’s idea is that in order to develop properly, an infant must learn that the early, blissful illusion of perfect mother and baby cannot be sustained. (The Kleinian explanation is that the infant matures by learning that good and bad can exist in the same object, rather than splitting them and sticking “good” and “bad” name tags at all the wrong psychological place settings.)
But for Samuels the critique of perfectionism is an opportunity to redefine what we expect from our political leaders. “A good-enough leader,” says Samuels, “is one who will sometimes fail, who is not the heroic role model. The way you manage failure is at the heart of good-enoughness.”
“Leaders cannot control how a complex modern society develops… they will always be one step behind.” However, while everyone knows this, “most of us are still stuck in a world where plans are supposed to ‘work’… There is a split between people’s cognitive understanding-that the politicians cannot work it all out-and their emotional desire for them to do so.”
There is always a tendency to look for simple answers from leaders. Despite the fact that average levels of education are higher today in developed countries than ever before, this tendency seems to be getting stronger. This is because our world is much more complex than it used to be and it takes much longer to digest the meanings and choices around us. I remember once running screaming from a US supermarket, because there were 50 different types of breakfast cereal. Now there are 50 different types of family, constitution and even epistemological framework.
It is always difficult dealing with complexity, and complexity is getting more complex. But we cannot give up the effort. Many Nato critics seem unable to respond to the novelty of the Kosovo equation. They are trying to fit new events into old templates.
Societies which are rigid in seeking perfection, like the former Soviet Union, get into trouble because mistakes go uncorrected. But societies which find awfulness in everything get into trouble too; they face paralysis, a refusal to make any diagnosis and take any action. Nato policy may or may not be right. But it should be allowed to be imperfect.