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Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

This French phrase is attributed to a 19th century French satirical critic named Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr. It is widely known by its shortened version; plus ça change. It means, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same.’ In a punning way, this phrase is structurally negative and reveals the soft underbelly of many unnuanced changes.

It carries the notion that in this world of smoke and mirrors, in some instances, change is at best fragile and at worst an intangible mirage.

At the drop of a hat, excessively optimistic people, keen to naively join the Pollyanna chorus advocating for change have often learnt this the hard way. Forced to eat humble pie as their hopes were decimated! Their unbridled joy turned into bitter reality! Ironically the grand illusion of change is normally preceded by high-sounding flashy catchwords; promissory notes for a much-vaunted dawn of a new era heralding a positive seismic shift. Hence the need to tread cautiously, avoiding falling for changes like a hungry bull terrier would voraciously snarf down food in a bowl, even if it contained highly lethal content.

To better understand plus ça change, it would be essential to appreciate two important factors about this aphorism uttered by Karr; context and intent. Context; Karr coined this expression a year after the French Revolution of 1848. Napoleon had ascended to the presidency of the state and peasants were in eager expectation of reforms that would usher in their freedom. Karr did not share in the fervour of the optimism that permeated the society. Intent; through plus ça change, Karr intended to communicate his pessimism. David Smith; a credit modelling consultant, waxes philosophical; “The huge changes that you often see happening…don’t represent real change, and are covering up the fact that the status quo in society tends to remain unchanged.’ In other words, while at a superficial level, change might have taken place, fundamental patterns with profound impact on lives often remain deeply ingrained and unchangeable.

A few examples are in order; euphoric optimism engulfed the black community when Barack Obama was elected the United States’ first African American president. Blacks, many of whom had been unduly victimised by the ‘institutionalised’ culture of prejudice visualised a racist-free US under Obama. For them, the nation was going to kiss good-bye to the racial profiling, caused by ugly ‘while black’ phenomena such as, ‘shopping while black, driving while black, walking while black and breathing while black;’ the view held by some wicked American cops that one should be denied these civil and natural liberties on account of their swarthy pigmentation.

Was this expectation fulfilled? To this day, 12 years since the historic appointment of a black man to the US presidency, redolent of the Jim Crow hysteria, racism still abound. Blacks bear the brunt of a racially biased criminal justice system and continue to be victims of employment discrimination and shootings by police officers and white supremacists. Closely linked to this is the disillusion of many South African blacks who had hoped that the birth of a rainbow nation under the ‘saintly’ leadership of Nelson Mandela would deliver the much-needed changes in infrastructural developments, housing delivery, employment, opportunities for higher education and the narrowing of the income inequality gap. Over quarter of a century later, people at the receiving end have concluded that the current regime has failed them, the same way they were failed by the previous one. With gnawing feelings of emptiness and unfulfilled expectations, these people are likely to assert that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The United States is fond of driving its foreign policy and has on many occasions in the past pushed for a regime change. This has happened in Panama, Iraq and Libya. In so doing, apart from plotting

to enthrone a regime that would be deferential to the US, the Americans also hoped to improve lives of people. Did that happen or was this just another case in favour of plus ça change?  Reflect on the excitement that reverberated across part of the African diaspora when Emmerson Mnangagwa took over from president Robert Mugabe in November 2017. The needle must have shattered the hope-meter of many across the world. People envisioned peace, tolerance across the political and racial divide, economic growth and material prosperity. Has much changed? A few Zimbabweans have been heard lamenting that the previous regime was much better than the current one. This does not only solidify the plus ça change view, but is also largely reflective of a phenomenon known in Latin as memoria praeteritorum. It means people often have fond memories of the past and tend to disproportionately recall more good than bad about the past. This rosy retrospection accounts for frequent and biased bouts of amnesia about the past.

The phenomenon of plus ça change is often felt on the home-front, when love gives way to self-centredness, me-ism and a bitter divorce. Years after divorce, perhaps into their second or third marriage, upon introspection in a different environment, some men and women have intoned, “Had I known, I would not have divorced my first mate!’ Why? On account of plus ça change. Their objective or subjective analysis of their current mate often reveals an unreasonably hyped expectation, and when that expectation is not fulfilled, they come to appreciate that the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Plus ça change has also been felt across different sectors of the corporate world. Renewed hope on the back of the retirement or firing of the incumbent boss and the engagement of a new one enthusiastically and brashly blaring forth uncompromising fidelity to performance. Employees working for an organisation or a department that had been rocked by issues of lethargic performance, favouritism and lack of visionary leadership would gleefully look forward to the appointment of a new boss.

In a bid to recreate the mood and the milieu of a fulfilling and an efficient work environment, flaunting his ‘stellar’ credentials, the new boss would trumpet his vision through a mélange of punchy catchwords and catchphrases stolen from leadership books to throw the employees into orbit; world-class leadership, transformation, winning business model, commitment to creativity, innovation and excellence. An ebullient mood would pervade the organisation or department as the boss paints in broad brushstrokes a sense of renewal and fresh commitment to performance.

Once called to directly engage with the innards of the business, how often have we noted the dislocation between commitment and delivery, only because such shallow initiatives tend to lack the penetrating and effective finesse of thin calligraphic strokes that would unambiguously translate the new boss’ grandiloquence into action! A clear case of all talk and no substance.

You may have observed social, economic and political changes that have taken place in your lifetime. Obviously, you have witnessed many positive life-altering changes. The principle of plus ça change does not deny the benefit of changes. It only calls for a cautious appreciation. Like Mike Farkas, an analytic Slovak- American, said, “Everything is changing all the time. Everything may appear to be different, but it was, and always will be, part of the same picture, the bigger ambiguous picture which remains the same throughout time.”

The Lighthouse

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