What is action? Is it wrestling a crocodile? Donning a disguise to hunt down criminals? Crossing the globe in search of the Lost Ark? True, these are highly active pursuits, but none of them at all resembles the relatively quiet and practical way in which the world does most of its business. Action in the modern world is primarily intellective. Its theater is the office, the conference room and the lecture hall. Its instruments are thoughts conveyed in words, numbers and symbols. Its modes are meditation, analysis and dialogue. Whether you want to save a rain forest, recover millions from a corporation or impeach a President, you must work within these subtle and urbane perimeters.
Francis Bacon, at pains to provide the world with a historical example of great political leadership, ignored the famous British warrior-kings and instead wrote his biography on the quiet Henry VII, a king who reasoned and negotiated his way to a successful government. In so doing Bacon blazed a theoretical trail for the rise of modern politics, a process based on rational consensus and dialogue rather than force of arms and blind faith.
Another example is more recent. Two years before the United States entered World War II, Albert Einstein signed the following letter to the President:
Old Grove Rd.
Peconic, Long Island
August 2d, 1939
President of the United States
Some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future. Certain aspects of the situation which has arisen seem to call for watchfulness and, if necessary, quick action on the part of the Administration. I believe therefore that it is my duty to bring to your attention the following facts and recommendations.
In the course of the last four months it has been made probable--through the work of Joliot in France as well as Fermi and Szilard in America--that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future.
This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable--though much less certain--that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory. However, such bombs might very well prove to be too heavy for transportation by air....
The Einstein letter goes on with facts and recommendations and concludes with a warning that German scientists are already working on a nuclear bomb of their own. In all, it runs to just under 500 words. Written by a non-native English speaker, it has no claim to formal eloquence. Yet it changed the course of human history, thanks to the urgency of its ideas and the supreme scientific authority of Einstein and his colleagues. So it is with every technological achievement. The deployment of colossal force originates in the mind and is conceived and regulated via the spoken and written word. Power is born of reason and lives as reason’s ward. We must do everything possible to preserve this crucial relationship. We must control the action of power with acts of reason.
What are acts of reason? I commit an act of reason every time I study a subject and convey my conclusions to another or others. My presentation may be as short as a single number or as long as a series of books.
What is a typical act of reason? Though rational presentations have no fixed length, the great majority are short enough to conform to the other demands of social life: scheduling, attention span and the dynamics of dialogue. Such presentations, be they book reviews, letters to the editor, doctors’ diagnoses, responses to formal presentations, or self-contained monologues in the midst of a chat, run between 250 and 1000 words, or between two and eight minutes. These informal essays, long enough to allow for development but short enough not to offend, are the chief everyday means by which reason affirms its power in society. They are the heartwood of social action.
It would follow from these premises that the skill of incisive analysis and effective brief presentation should be among the most sought after, universally admired and most generously rewarded in society. But while values of this sort do inhere in certain areas (science and to some extent law and the military), they are far from operative in culture as a whole. Culture as a whole loves clarity and wit and truth, but not quite so much, in the final analysis, as it reveres more immediate necessities like Pleasing the Boss and the Quick Buck. Culture as a whole leaves the weighty issues of analysis and presentation to freshman comp at college, generally cheaply run and poorly regarded courses taught by grad students, the peons of the academy. And many small colleges, lacking grad students and hurting for money, do not offer such courses at all.
Moreover, when comp courses are taught, they are taught as introductions to upper division term paper writing rather than preparation for real-life “acts of reason.” Typical comp assignments are essays taking a stand on generic issues likeY2K, abortion, free speech or the environment; while the acts of reason we are called on to perform in real life involve humbler challenges like writing a job application, making a presentation to a client, reasoning with a young person who wants to drop out of college or convincing a judge not to incarcerate one of our children on a drug possession charge. Because of this discrepancy, and because I wish to offer an alternative to prevailing attitudes and methods, I have a few things to say about the spirit and structure of an act of reason.
Acts of reason are based on processes of study and understanding. Whether I am recommending a car repair or the restructuring of a corporation, I must know what I’m talking about. My presentation will convey, insofar as possible, the structure of my understanding, as well as expressing my interest in the subject and my commitment to my audience. But what does “understanding” mean? I have heard people lecture interminably, spewing out data and conclusions, without suggesting a bean’s worth of understanding. They have mastered a few tricks of the trade, without mastering the principles that give the trade its value.
What are the principles of understanding? Simply put, we must face our subject matter from four distinct but overlapping perspectives:
Exposition details the nature of an existing situation. Narrative details the development of a situation across time. Micro-analysis views our subject as an autonomous whole and shows its inner workings. Macro-analysis views our subject as a part of the larger perspective, as well as projecting action into the future.
These four perspectives mimic the general ways in which people normally think about problems. In exposition we view our topic as a mass of present data and then organize that data into a structure of contributing vectors. In narrative, on the other hand, we set up a time-line in which our topic ultimately emerges as a product of rationally accessible causes. The combination of exposition and narrative energizes a subject by projecting it into four-dimensional reality. Similar breadth and vitality are achieved by combining micro-analysis with macro-analysis. Micro-analysis considers the subject as a coherent whole whose various components contribute well or poorly to its overall well-being. Macro-analysis reveals the subject as itself a functional part of a surrounding panorama. The two perspectives balance and enrich each other.
Suppose that I have to recommend the reorganization of a corporation. I begin by describing (Exposition) the current mess it’s in. This segues into a description (Narrative) of how it got that way. Then I describe (Micro-analysis) the internal changes that will make the company operate better, and finally (Macro-analysis) list the ways in which these changes will make it more successful in the global marketplace.
Let ‘s look at an illustrious example:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this
continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the
proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in
a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so
conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great
battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of
that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their
lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and
proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot
dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.
The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated
it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will
little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never
forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be
dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here
have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here
dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these
honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which
they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly
resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this
nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that
government of the people, by the people, for the people shall
not perish from the earth.
Lincoln begins his Gettysburg Address with a narrative, “Four score and seven years ago,” and proceeds in the next sentence into an exposition containing a macro-analysis of the “great civil war” as a test of national principle. In the third sentence he moves into a micro-analysis, “We have come to dedicate a portion of that field,” that specifies the spiritual meaning of the consecrated land. Having established these essential parameters, he moves seamlessly into the business of his speech, the glorification of the Union.
Lincoln’s Address utilizes as well a number of other perspectives that relate not only to understanding but also to forceful expression. In terms of moral perspective he is alternately descriptive, “We are met on a great battlefield of that war,” and prescriptive, “It is for us the living rather to be dedicated,” thus giving the sense that his recommendations are based on solid fact. In terms of poetic perspective, he alternates direct language, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here,” with a poetic metaphor of conception and birth that arches from the beginning to the conclusion of the speech, “our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty,” “this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom.” In so doing he rounds his meaning psychologically, expanding it into personal and emotional areas of cognition. Finally, he couches all in language that can be remembered and repeated, “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth,” thus making his speech not only convincing in the present but into the future.
How can a speech so full of intellectual tricks sound so beautifully simple? Simplicity is the greatest trick of all.
The Art of Honesty. In writing the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln exploited an essential rhetorical advantage that I have not yet mentioned. He believed in what he was saying, and his statements will withstand the closest scrutiny by friend or foe. With these criteria in mind, compare the following excerpt from a speech by Adolf Hitler:
SPEECH OF MAY 4, 1941
Deputies. Men of the German Reichstag:
At a time when only deeds count and words are of little importance, it is not my intention to appear before you, the elected representatives of the German people, more often than absolutely necessary. The first time I spoke to you was at the outbreak of the war when, thanks to the Anglo-French conspiracy against peace, every attempt at an understanding with Poland, which otherwise would have been possible, had been frustrated
The most unscrupulous men of the present time had, as they admit today, decided as early as 1936 to involve the Reich, which in its peaceful work of reconstruction was becoming too powerful for them, in a new and bloody war and, if possible, to destroy it. They had finally succeeded in finding a State that was prepared for their interests and aims, and that State was Poland.
All my endeavors to come to an understanding with Britain were wrecked by the determination of a small clique which, whether from motives of hate or for the sake of material gain, rejected every German proposal for an understanding due to their resolve, which they never concealed, to resort to war, whatever happened.
The man behind this fanatical and diabolical plan to bring about war at whatever cost was Mr. Churchill. His associates were the men who now form the British Government.
These endeavors received most powerful support, both openly and secretly, from the so-called great democracies on both sides of the Atlantic. At a time when the people were more and more dissatisfied with their deficient statesmanship, the responsible men over there believed that a successful war would be the most likely means of solving problems that otherwise would be beyond their power to solve.
Behind these men there stood the great international Jewish financial interests that control the banks and the Stock Exchange as well as the armament industry. And now, just as before, they scented the opportunity of doing their unsavory business. And so, just as before, there was no scruple about sacrificing the blood of the peoples. That was the beginning of this war. A few weeks later the State that was the third country in Europe, Poland, but had been reckless enough to allow herself to be used for the financial interests of these warmongers, was annihilated and destroyed.
Here the speaker’s attitude towards his subject matter is quite the opposite of Lincoln’s. Every one of Hitler’s short paragraphs contains at least one colossal lie. There was no “Anglo-French conspiracy against peace” involving Poland (Hitler conveniently omits to mention that in 1940 Germany unilaterally attacked both France and England). Instead of being “rejected” in its bid for peace with England, Germany was accommodated in every way possible by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whose efforts at appeasement Churchill (then out of office) was powerless to stop. “Jewish financial interests” did not “control the banks and the Stock Exchange as well as the armament industry.” Falsehoods as numerous and egregious as these require intense effort, forcing the speech to move breathlessly, without any color or reflection, from one self-righteous affirmation to the next. Hitler has become so possessed by his lies, and so dependent on them, that he has lost the rhetorical power to make them stick.
Comparing Lincoln’s wartime speech with Hitler’s suggests two important things about the relationship between honesty and rhetoric. First, it suggests that honesty is rhetorically liberating, and dishonesty rhetorically inhibiting. Lincoln, who feels quite at ease with the data he is relating, can expand on his thoughts discursively and poetically until they achieve an emotional fullness, while Hitler is constrained, by the very brazenness of his dishonesty, to reiterate, ad nauseam, a series of flat and lifeless ideas.
The trouble is, while it's relatively easy to fib or to keep a secret, it's downright difficult to speak honestly. Honesty is not to be confused with simplicity or naivety. Honest leaders must speak knowledgeably and convincingly on issues that are achingly complex. Inevitably, they must be able to recognize and convey ambiguity and ambivalence, and to reveal the troublesome course which we must often steer between aspiration and necessity. Last but not least, they must endow reason with an emotional bite. It is not unfair to conclude that there is an art of honesty: a discipline hearkening back to traditional rhetoric and poetics, but armed additionally with the of memory of personal experience and the magic of common speech. It is this art that distinguishes a true leader from an autocrat or a copycat.
Those wishing to learn the art of honesty must look not only at the rhetorical principles I have sketched in this chapter. They must look as well at the works and character of the leaders they admire, as well as into the wisdom of the past. But most importantly they must look into themselves, examine their own motives, reassess their missions and tap the energy of their basic commitment, to meet the challenges of leadership in an age when square dealing is both more difficult and more necessary than ever before.
The demands of honesty, however, go well beyond writing and speech. What good in the world is it to write and speak honestly, when we are regularly duped by hucksters, con artists and demagogues? What good, when lies have scrambled our wits and turned us into the unwitting conduits of falsehood? America, in particular, is full of such innocents, who like George Washington will never tell a lie, but like Homer Simpson will believe anything they hear. Rightly understood, honesty should extend into our methods of reading and listening, where we should be as critical of incoming information as we are of what goes out.
We need no more graphic example of this than the spring and summer of 2002, when revelations of corporate dishonesty reduced stock market values by a sum in the trillions. The causality was blatantly clear: major firms had used devious accounting methods to present themselves as being more profitable than they actually were. Disclosure of these practices drove the firms’ common stock into meltdown, while investors, loath to be outdone by corporations in terms of greed and panic, joined ranks in a general sell-off. America’s leaders responded with appropriate indignation, but as events evolved it transpired that they had ironic connections with the objects of their outrage. Corporate book-cooking was decried by the U. S. President George W. Bush, whose last personal venture in corporate America had been investigated by the Attorney General. Bush’s outrage was echoed by Dick Cheney, the Vice President, ex-CEO of a firm that was about to be investigated for fraudulent accounting. And anti-fraud legislation was immediately introduced by the Senate, who in 2001 had been trading accusations, along party lines, of estimate-fudging in debates about the budget surplus and Social Security.
Are we having fun yet?
Now for something remarkable. It is August, 2002, and the scandal of corporate dishonesty is all over the headlines. Enter National Public Radio. On Sunday the 11th Liane Hansen, after a lead-in on disastrous breaches of business ethics, interviews Joseph Badaracco, Jr., Professor at Harvard Business School and author of the book, Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing. Badaracco responds to Hansen’s questions knowledgeably and is especially insightful about the motives that drive executives to cheat and lie. The interview is well organized and illuminating; it conveys the tone, not rare for NPR, of a civilized appeal to moral authority. The only trouble is that anyone who takes the time to read Leading Quietly will find in Chapter Three (“Buy a Little Time”) the following paragraph:
Creative accounting is another way for Williams [a banker] to throw his boss a bone. Managers almost always have some discretion about reporting revenues and costs. If Williams looks carefully, he can probably find ways to defer some costs and accelerate the recognition of revenues. This will raise his unit’s profits. Of course, Williams needs to do this carefully. He should not violate generally accepted accounting principles or banking regulations. Breaking the rules – which the CFO of the start-up wanted done – is a crude, quick, unimaginative, shortsighted and unethical way out of a problem. What Williams needs are ways to use the rules creatively or even bend them a little. This game should be played sparingly and cautiously – if his branch gets into trouble, the tactics could be used against him. But if he must choose between creative accounting and firing people unfairly, Williams may need to depart from highest standards of accounting precision and play some of the games that managers often play.
I quote the paragraph in full to do its author justice, and I should add that its context is also mitigating. Williams is between a rock and a hard place. He must show his boss results but hasn’t been given the time to produce any. The jobs of decent people are at stake. Moreover, Badaracco’s whole book is about how leaders behave in ambiguous situations of this sort. But this is all beside the point, or rather, two points. The first point is that Badaracco weighs in on the side of “creative accounting” but does not own up to this in a national interview pertinent to the “creative accounting” scandal. The second point is that Hansen apparently has not read enough of his book to query him about his views on this key issue.
With malfeasance as generously distributed as this, it is hard to know where precisely to pin the blame. For want of better, let’s blame ourselves, the victims, the gullible majority that let dishonesty become a cash cow and a staple of culture. We have allowed dishonesty, even fostered it, because we have not been honest listeners, honest readers.
Truth and Critical Thinking. Finally let’s look at the product of honesty, truth. In philosophical and moral debates, nothing is simpler than showing that “truth” is relative and “honesty” ambiguous. But the fact remains that civilization’s life blood is the flow of information. Self-interested interference with this flow, via dishonest claims or disclosures, is as dangerous to the vital economy as a virus raging in an animate body. Truth is the real wealth of nations, for understanding and communicating reality is the only way to determine and create value.
Honest listening and reading demand critical thinking, which simply put is our means of analyzing and evaluating theories and proposals that are presented to us. Critical thinking is so subtle and elegant an art that its very practice suggests philosophical maturity and political independence. Nonetheless, some of its basic principles can be simply put and easily remembered as a set of questions to be asked whenever somebody is trying to sell you a theory or idea. I will list these questions, appending a negative illustration of each:
1-Is the presentation self-consistent? A postmodern theorist asserts that the views of every human being except him are subjective and illusory.
2-Is the material clearly expressed or hard to understand? A church bases its policies on holy writings that are impenetrably obscure.
3-What if everybody did followed this advice? A rebel usurps the King’s throne and is later expelled by other rebels who follow his own example.
4-Does it fit the facts as you know them? Hitler claims that World War II was caused by British, French and Jewish conspirators, but you are aware that it was Hitler himself who made the trouble.
5-Does it conform with your experience in society? A floor saleslady tells you that a product is fully warranted, but your experience suggests that having warranty work done is more trouble than the work is worth.
6-Does something in it look out of place? A Congressional appropriations bill for road improvement contains incidental gifts to interest groups.
7-Does it get to the heart of the matter? Will the weight loss pill advertised on TV make up for poor eating habits and slovenly lack of exercise?
8-Does it deal with all major aspects of the issue? A politician tells you that war is glorious but fails to mention that war is demoralizing and brutal.
9-How would my acceptance of this idea benefit its proponents? A President tries to convince you of the necessity of waging war in order to divert attention away from the corruption manifest in his administration.
10-Is the policy sustainable over time? The State House boasts of its effective justice system while its short-sighted enforcement policies cram the prisons with minor drug offenders.
11-Does it remind you of other ideas or theories you’ve read about? An Internet investment plan turns out to be just another version of the Ponzi scheme.
12-What authority, evidence or form of rhetoric is used to express it? A religious proselytizer tells you that he is working under the direct supervision of Almighty God.
13-What is the character of the theory’s proponent? A candidate for the State Senate is indicted for racketeering and fraud.
14-Does it excite you emotionally, and why? As a US Senator, you vote against equal rights legislation because you have always been frightened and offended by minorities.
15-Does it support or infringe on your vested interests? You attack environmental legislation because you happen to be in the logging business.
These questions test the theory for consistency, coherence and wholeness. They test its power, relevance, scope, practicability and durability. They inquire into its motives and origins and evaluate its mode of expression. Finally they turn the tables and ask whether you are emotionally biased in favor of or against the theory. Your responses to these questions form the basis of your critique of the theory. They also provide exercise in a psychologically and socially healthy occupation. To ask these questions is not only analyze the theory but also to renew the mind.
Critical thinking, moreover, is a curious form of self-teaching through inner dialogue. Having asked the questions and responded to them, I somehow know more about the issue addressed than I did before. And in struggling to achieve knowledge from the outer world and to relate back to the world again, I learn more about myself.