Wise leaders should know that when people are united by a common cause in their heads, it is very hard to dislodge this idea. Banning something or an organisation will not change their minds.
One of those “truisms” that parents have to contend with is that if you tell your kids not to do something, chances are that’s exactly what they will do.
Which makes life hard for parents trying to protect their children from harm but nevertheless necessitates some creativity in finding ways to get the message across in the right way.
I think sometimes governing a country works in the same way. If you tell people not to do something, they are not really going to listen unless you have credibility.
That comes with being able to give persuasive reasons why something must not or cannot be done, as well as what would happen if they did do it.
I don’t think that banning anything works. For one thing, it is a shortcut for not explaining the reasons why banning happens and for another it shows a lack of creativity in trying to get people to understand.
In our country, we happen to like banning books.
Most of the time we are given no real reason why certain books are banned other than that they are likely to “cause confusion”. Why exactly that is, we are not told.
Hence, people find one way or another to find these books elsewhere and to smuggle them into the country. If nothing else, the reason why they do this is just to find out what exactly is in these books that would cause them to be banned.
I’ve read a few banned books and thus far, I cannot see anything that anyone who is educated and well-read would object to in them.
The same thing happens with organisations.
After Sept 11, the United States banned anything to do with al-Qaeda. Anyone who had even the remotest of links with the organisation (or even less than remote) had no chance of ever getting a visa to visit America.
In fact, very few countries in the world, including Muslim ones, would welcome al-Qaeda within their borders.
Yet it lives on, precisely because it is not an organisation built like other organisations with formal structures. It simply exists because of the commonality of ideas (and grouses) among its “members”.
The same can be said of other organisations that come together because of a common grievance or cause. They may have nothing to do with any form of terrorism and their leaders may have dubious reputations.
But once the idea behind it has taken off, there is no way of banning it on a legal basis. Membership exists only in people’s heads, not on any piece of paper.
Wise leaders should know that when people are united by a common cause in their heads, it is very hard to dislodge this idea.
In the 50s, once the idea of independence had lodged in the heads of the people of Malaya, it was very hard to get rid of it.
The road to independence became inevitable and whatever was in people’s heads soon translated into legal papers.
The British saw the futility of insisting on keeping the colonies under their thumb.
As a result, they let them go mostly peacefully and relations have remained generally good until today and benefited all sides.
Colonial powers that have resisted independence movements elsewhere have found themselves in very expensive wars to keep their colonies, to the benefit of no one.
We should learn to differentiate between structured organisations that we can see and deal with, and the more difficult organisations that only exist in people’s minds. We can bring all sorts of punitive measures on the former but virtually nothing on the latter.
We cannot go around asking people what is in their heads because they will never trust us enough to tell us the truth. So they may all say they do not belong to an organisation but instead remain true to the idea.
To win that battle, it is important to recognise why such ideas even take root. Perhaps they have a germ of justification. Perhaps what they were complaining about has some basis.
When we wanted independence, the British understood that there was a basis for it. While Americans these days are wanting out of Iraq, not recognising that fact can be detrimental to people wanting to lead them.
To simply dismiss such ideas as being totally without basis, that people’s grouses are just imagined, is stupid and dangerous.
Like our teenaged children, there is no better guarantee to keep an idea fertilised and ever-growing than by insisting that they are imaginary and therefore not worth anyone’s time.
Today’s parents are told to respect our children’s grouses and to listen properly in order to gain their trust and find some solution that suits all sides. Surely governments should do the same?