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Janek Mäggi: Picking a side means picking a fight

While it pays to maintain your composure even if a new road or railway line is designed to run straight through your living room or a landfill, prison or madhouse moves in next door, it’s even more important for the authorities to maintain theirs, says public relations officer and former Minister of Public Administration Janek Mäggi.

Imagine the horror of living in a country where blood-suckingly avaricious entrepreneurs enjoy free rein in violating the unsullied natural environment, felling ancient forests, replacing historical buildings with faceless glass monoliths and releasing treated but still unclean water into the sea – and nobody having the power to stop them.

Even more horrifying is the thought of a country where the state, at enormous, almost unfathomable cost, constructs roads that are of no use to anyone and that serve as little more than wind corridors. Sure, they might put up a wall between your back door and the motorway, but they snatch half your yard to erect it without so much as a by-your-leave: the self-same state which takes sights of natural beauty and turns them into landfills and prisons. The sheer barbarousness of it is infuriating and forces you to take a stand.

At the same time, there are those who’d like to do something nice and perfectly normal – build a petrol station, useful shortcuts, amazing apartments, a new university building, a factory that will put food on the table for generations to come – and are told they can’t. They mustn’t be allowed to!

Hackles raised, the wolves at the door bay their condemnation in newspapers and at protests, their foetid breath filling the heads of politicians with hot air. And thus is the matter decided. Each threat is a grotesque escalation; every lie bigger and more brazen than the last. Living in such a country is impossible.

Of course, the state is to blame for everything, since it can never bring itself to make a decision. It’s the government’s fault – a government whose ministers’ sole purpose in life is to be part of the next government as well; a government which never chooses sides and is therefore no good to anyone.

It’s all too tempting for the government and the state to think not about what will be good for Estonia over the next 5000 years, but what’s on trend here and now. Which doesn’t mean the state should drape itself in tasteless decisions – but instead of following trends, it should set them.

Spell it out from the very beginning how much it’ll cost to get you to zip your lip

The duty with which the powers-that-be are tasked is to make smart decisions on a long-term basis. Inevitably, this forces them to steamroll their way across an interest group or two, since interests are often personal rather than about society as a whole, and tend to focus on the shorter term. They may not be limited to the lifetime of the afflicted: decisions also affect future generations. But still, the option must always remain for the powers-that-be to ignore the interests of individual citizens if favouring them would lead to the suffering of a significant slice of society.

In a great many cases, not-in-my-backyard arguments boil down to money. People, be they entrepreneurs or the most ordinary of citizens, have an infinite capacity for greed – far more than we ever allow to show. Before you know it, something’s been sold off that we were promised would never be up for sale, because money talks and pockets are easily lined. As a rule, public cries of “Woe is me!” are not always entirely genuine: they’re driven by a wish not granted, an appeal not heard, a demand not acceded to.

Where freedom of speech is concerned, getting caught in the crossfire of a public war of words comes with the territory. There’s always the possibility that both sides – whether people, companies or organisations, and however diametrically opposed – will justify their positions so convincingly that you believe both of them 100% even though their stories don’t and never will go together. It’s like when two people break up and they both tell you the other person’s to blame for it all going wrong. Of course it was their fault! And as they explain to you in detail why this is the case, you believe every word.

Perhaps it’s time to move out?

So how then can you make decisions no one will protest against? The answer is: you can’t. The question, on the other hand, is whether a decision seems smart and sensible to the person making it; whether they’ve given due consideration to the opinions and interests of key target groups, or whether, in the end, they’ve opted for the sort of middle ground that exasperates both sides.

Protesters can be ignored, of course. The most short-sighted of rulers looks only to the votes they stand to gain or lose at the next election. Life shows that people will eventually accept even the most hateful of decisions: for the most part, the main event is everything that goes on up until the point at which the decision is made. Needless to say, a war of words isn’t about making the world a better place, but swaying decisions to your advantage.

For this reason, picking a side (or at least doing so publicly) isn’t always your best course of action. Many positions which are aired openly by third parties, not just those with a vested interest, are self-serving to some extent. People never climb up out of the trenches and take to the battlefield just for the sake of it.

Behind major international issues there are also interest groups, financiers, who see an opportunity to profit from trends. Some trends benefit society, but there are far more with which we line the pockets of restricted interest groups by going along with them.

It pays to maintain your composure even if a new road or railway line is designed to run straight through your living room or a landfill, prison or madhouse moves in next door. But perhaps it’s time to move elsewhere? It’s even more important for the authorities to maintain their composure and not cave in to pressure from any one interest group to ignore the interests of another.

You have to stand up for your own interests. This doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be weighed against the interests of society, especially by the powers-that-be. If the interests of society outweigh private interests, society’s interests must prevail – and not just for the next four years of the election cycle, but in building up a nation that will last for 5000 years.