On destruction

by The Editor

TheThingAboutSERIES: It is difficult at the best of times to plan ahead. Why cater for the possibility that something which functions well at the moment might, with time, breakdown? What an onerous undertaking. But that attitude is the very basis on which ideals and assets deteriorate – through neglect and a failure to maintain and manage their integrity. Any urgent crisis must, of course, be addressed but they are best avoided by relentlessly acting to ensure those things that work retain their strength.

On destruction

By: Gareth van Onselen

13 February 2013

Blatant damage is easily condemnable. Its consequences are plain to see, jarring and thus relatively easy to counter. Slow and subtle decay, however, is more difficult to discern – less often addressed, but no less caustic.

The gradual degradation of something once majestic, eaten away by time and neglect, is indicative of a kind of ignorance – an inability or unwillingness to see a potential threat for what it really is; choosing rather to excuse it or explain it away. And so, very often, the greatest threat to the protection of any asset is not those obvious destructive forces, proudly wielding devastation in their hands, but the insidious menace that lurks in the shadows, constantly gnawing away, bit by bit, at the integrity of valuable things.

Significantly, the same problem applies to principles and values that, likewise, can be eroded away by neglect. Just like a material object, an idea must be maintained or it will fade away.

It is hard for those responsible for the upkeep and protection of ideals and material things alike, to justify the redirection of resources to counter some danger mostly hidden. The popular demand is for those more urgent crises to be addressed. And it takes much wisdom and convincing adequately to balance the two.

It makes sense, then, that in a society damaged by decades of neglect, rife with urgent crises, the first thing to suffer is long-term planning; such is the desperate need to stabilise the myriad more immediate emergencies. In such an environment, like an infected wound, those relentlessly slow and corrosive threats thrive and fester; able to go about their business devoid of any real attention.

At some point, when their effect is palpable, they will be elevated in the public mind. Alas, too late most often: one can amputate but the infection will nonetheless inevitably kill its host.

Any democratic order is in a constant state of entropy, maintaining its integrity requires a never-ending vigilance, of both the principles that underpin it and the hard infrastructure that supports it.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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