My old neighborhood in Baltimore, where I lived for almost 14 years, was known for its many bars and restaurants. Reputedly, we had more liquor licenses in a few blocks than in any other jurisdiction in the state of Maryland. As a neighborhood activist and a founding member of the ineptly-named Liquor Advisory Committee of our neighborhood association, I had an extensive and intimate knowledge of how these establishments operated. We needed to form this Liquor Advisory Committee because, with its concentration of drinking establishments, our neighborhood would transform on weekends into a massive raucous street party with all the attendant mayhem one could imagine, particularly when local colleges were in session.
To be fair, many of the restaurants were perfectly respectable and law-abiding. They were quite wonderful to boot. A critical mass, though, catered to the party crowd and contributed to the distress of residents and other business owners without bestowing much benefit. The neighborhood association regularly confronted these owners about their illegally serving underaged or overly inebriated customers and unleashing them onto our streets. We would explain that these same illicit customers destroyed our property, disturbed our peace, and committed any number of crimes from public defecation (sorry if you are eating while reading this, but it is true), to vandalism, to street fighting, to sexual assault, to drunk driving. Invariably, then, the owners, who all lived elsewhere, fell back on a tired array of excuses. The most common was that if the owners were to enforce all the onerous rules and regulations that the oppressive government and intolerant neighbors imposed, their businesses would not survive and the community would lose its vibrancy. Keep in mind that there were many establishments that were run by responsible citizens that did not contribute to the general pandemonium but still somehow thrived and were key to the neighborhood's character.
In short, the recalcitrant business owners honestly believed that the community’s collective torment should subsidize their shoddy business practices and contribute to their financial gain while offering the neighborhood almost nothing in return. Since so many other restaurants did not significantly add to the chaos, I long contended that any business model that required a liquor establishment to break laws or cause undo stress to the surrounding neighborhood was not a particularly good business model. Indeed, such a business was by definition an utter failure, and the recalcitrant owners were in fact bad businessmen (and they were all men).
I describe all this as a roundabout lead-in to my reflection on the relationship between bullying and incompetence in the workplace. Richard Osman recently tweeted this profundity that I wholly endorse: "If you can't do your job without bullying people then you can't do your job." In short, just like the feckless bar owners who could not turn a sufficient profit while operating within the parameters of the law and the boundaries of basic human decency, bullies in the workplace are inherently incompetent.
Perhaps you feel otherwise, that you cannot get ahead except by stepping on others. If so, let's start with the premise that the very essence of your job is to support the flourishing of your organization. Then, how exactly does suppressing others' ability to perform advance your organization? Perhaps you imagine that your competence is best measured by your ability to climb a ladder or to stay in your current position and retain a title. If so, you are demonstrably wrong. After all, how many individuals do you personally know who are obviously inept at their jobs yet are never fired and are sometimes even promoted? You are likely recalling many people at this moment, maybe even your boss, aren't you? Therefore, if you know these outwardly successful people to be categorically incompetent, then you can only conclude that personal success cannot be the measure of competence. Indeed, the meritocracy remains an unfulfilled promise.
So, like the bar owners, if you must break standard rules of decency or break people to do your job and to get ahead, you are not good at your job and do not deserve to advance. If you feel your position requires you to gaslight, manipulate, backstab, bully, or just plain be an asshole, I aver that you are an incompetent. Whether you get the work done is rendered irrelevant by your rancid behavior. (In fairness, such behavior will likely earn you the coveted Niccolò Machiavelli Award for Self-aggrandizement and Overall Post-medieval Behavior. You may collect your trophy over there by that sizable ash heap of the asshats of history.) If, on the other hand, you make an effort to treat people well, (and I mean make an effort. It is not a passive thing) and behave with decency in the workplace, then you have a shot at being competent, but just a shot. There is more to competence, of course, but at least you have not automatically forfeited all claim to competency by being a workplace jerk.
I am not suggesting that you need to be a Boy Scout or Girl Scout, a choirgirl or choirboy, or a passive pushover. Not at all. I am suggesting, though, nay, I am insisting that every time you have witnessed indecent behavior in the workplace, you have witnessed incompetence at work, and I say this while confessing that I myself have not always lived up to my personal standards of integrity. No one is perfect. Still, it matters not what lofty title, inflated salary, or slobbering acclaim you have accrued. It matters not how big your house is, how often people fawn over you, or how important you are convinced you are. If you feel you need to regularly act like a jerk and treat others badly, then you are nothing more than a jerk to your core. If you do not have the intelligence, the tenacity, or the fortitude to do your job with integrity and treat others with dignity, you cannot do your job well at all and discredit your organization. Ultimately, that indecent ineptitude you display is your only legacy. Oh, that and your Machiavelli Award. And if all this is hard to hear because it is a dog-eat-dog world and you need to accrue as much stuff and as much adulation as you can before you slip this mortal coil, then as you have no doubt said to others in some form or other, suck it up.
"You must forgive me my unworthiness." Bob Dylan
My decades in higher education have made me all-too familiar with the imposter syndrome, the niggling notion that one is not worthy and therefore a fraud. While this syndrome infects every profession, I suspect that it is most pervasive in academia in large part due to the meritocracy that is supposed to govern higher education. This meritocracy promises that excellence is the primary criterion for achievement and promotion and that this extraordinariness is demonstrated and measured through accomplishments. Thus, witnessing the abilities that one's peers display can be daunting and lead to feelings of deficiency and worthlessness. For faculty this sense of inferiority can start as early as graduate school.
That was my own first experience with the imposter syndrome. I would watch as my fellow graduate students performed seemingly effortless feats of intellect both in and out of class while I slogged along barely able to keep up. To make it worse, I even had a good friend who claimed to read two books of densely challenging literary criticism a day, and she was not lying! My eventual discovery that she seemed to have a peculiar ability to comprehend a whole page in a single glance did not lessen my feelings of inadequacy either. She was more brilliant and more productive than anyone I knew in graduate school, and I struggled to stay afloat in the fading vestige of her wake. If she was the real deal, I was certainly an imposter!
I was fortunate, though, to hear about the concept of the imposter syndrome at about the same time, which enabled me to grasp its pervasiveness and its implications. Even so, when finally ensconced as a faculty member (after a time on the academic job market, which can really dent your self-assurance!), I still felt the sting of others' seeming merit, a sting that accompanied me well into my decade as an administrator. After all, when you are surrounded by a bunch of smart overachievers who all answer to "doctor," having impressive letters after your name can seem a bit unspecial. In some ways and for the better, it was that very feeling of incapacity that helped propel me forward into becoming a dean. Nonetheless, eventually I came to realize that neither an administrator nor a faculty member could afford to indulge the imposter syndrome because it is, at its heart, a gross distortion of reality.
Among my peers, some succumbed to the syndrome and faded into a miasma of self-doubt masquerading as crippling humility. Because they were inadequate, they told themselves, they could never be effective as teachers and leaders and therefore need not try. Their conviction that they were forever feckless was the epitome of a fixed mindset. Others took the opposite tack and counterbalanced their sense of unfitness with an overly large dose of self-regard and, too often, arrogance. These folks were the preening peacocks of the faculty who promoted their own brand above all else and even denigrated and intimidated their peers. The worst practiced a sort of disciplinary snobbery and openly defamed other's academic fields, an act of craven anti-intellectualism that has no place in the academy. I had no patience for disciplinary snobs and marveled at how frequently they were among the least effective and most damaging teachers as well as the most inadequate researchers at their institutions.
Among administrators, particularly those with power, such countervailing arrogance had similarly predictable effects. Arrogance and self-regard bred contempt for colleagues and underlings alike. This contempt is a form of corruption that disallows a leader from seeing how their actions or inactions impact those around them. In the worst scenarios, it morphs into or becomes an excuse for an utter lack of empathy combined with a fatuous disregard for introspection, which results inevitably in a propensity to bully. For these administrators, their position or even just their title was the ultimate sign of their great merit. They were impervious to criticism and could only be challenged by those of higher rank, before whom they groveled and toadied.
Those who best managed their imposter syndrome were the ones who, as faculty or administrators, recognized the syndrome as a phantasm, a self-imposed criticism that fraudulently disguised itself as a judgment by others or by academia as a whole. In other words, they knew that the imposter syndrome was itself an imposter. These professionals realized that just about everyone was suffering from it, and the ones who appeared to have dispelled it by bloviating about their own accomplishments and superiority were usually the ones who were most tormented by the syndrome. The more well adjusted still felt like imposters from time to time, but they put those feelings in context and embraced their role as a faculty member or administrator first. Their goal was to do as well as they could without over-striving, bullying, or cowering. This lot was not perfect, but they did not beat themselves up for all their imperfections. Instead, they accepted that perfection is an impossible and unworthy goal (a matter I will discuss in a later post) and chose instead a growth mindset of constant self-review, adjustment, and improvement. Their efforts could be exhausting and certainly humbling, but they did the least harm.
I write here of higher education because it is the field I know best and the one, as I said, that may have the worse epidemic of imposter syndrome. I recognize and understand that not everyone in academia is affected by the syndrome and that it infects professional fields far and wide. I only hope that readers from every discipline can find something useful in this little essay and whatever hard-earned wisdom I can bring to it.
So if you feel inadequate, like you do not deserve what you have earned, remember that you are not alone. Many, perhaps most around you feel like imposters in their own skin. The best response is not to fix your mind on your own inadequacies. Nor is it to double down on your imposterism and pump yourself up beyond reason. The best mindset is one of recognition, acceptance, and growth. Let's face it. We are all imposters. Indeed, I feel like an imposter writing and posting this piece, but here we are. Imposters may rule the world, but we first need to rule ourselves.
On Election Day, I had the privilege of working the polls in Montgomery, NY. Although understaffed, we managed to process nearly 1,200 votes at that one polling station. My job was to help with the voting machines where voters fed their paper ballots for scanning and storage after making their selections. The voters were, almost to a person, polite and even enthusiastic, particularly when I would reward them with a sticker at the end of the process. The voting sticker occupies its own space in the American imagination as a emblem of honor and duty. After all, without the sticker, only an unceremonious thump and beep from the machine followed by an uptick in its digital counter would mark the august occasion of performing one's civic duty. American stickers may not be quite as satisfying as Australia's "democracy sausages," but they still offer a little thrill for almost everyone. In fact, only a handful of voters that day declined the decal. A few, apparently wary of the added drag of a piece of paper on their clothing, declared that they were "in a hurry." An even smaller number took the sticker and pasted it on before surlily announcing, "I already know I voted." I guess they figured the tag was meant as a reminder not to get back in line, like some sort of mnemonic "election ink." Of the hundreds of voters I processed, though, maybe twenty total declined this humble American electoral tradition, the sticker, and only a very few others were not grateful and gracious.
Just one gentleman stood on his own, though, by taking umbrage at the content of the sticker itself. At first, he accepted the badge as usual and turned to leave, but then he stopped and spun back with an intense look on his face. The sticker, I should point out, had two messages, or, more precisely, the same message in two languages. Across the top of the little oval with the American flag, it said, "I Voted." Across the bottom, it read "Yo Voté." This particular voter incredulously pronounced the bottom line to me as if it were English slang, "'Yo vote?' What is that?" I chose to take him at face value and replied as literally as possible, "it's Spanish."
I need to point out that it is not for the poll workers to engage voters in contentious discussions, so I hoped that my bland statement of the obvious would end the conversation. Instead, he blurted, "What? Spanish?" Struggling to decide if he was being sarcastic or was really confused, I called upon my three years of high school Spanish from back in the 1900s and pronounced it for him, "Yoe voe-tay," and repeated, "It's Spanish."
Instead of just moving on content with my approximation of the pronunciation, he chose to treat me to a spontaneous lecture on how "they" need to learn "our language" if "they" are going to live in "our country." I said nothing at all and looked hopefully toward the next voter in line, which somehow further encouraged my haranguer. "My grandparents had to learn English when they got here," he insisted, "so these people should learn our language." I remained steadfastly silent, which required a tremendous effort, as he started to reiterate the main points of his broadside. He clearly had nothing to add to his argument except an increasingly shrill intonation. Things were getting touchy for no reason I could ascertain, and I needed to defuse the situation and move him along so that others could freely exercise the franchise just as he did.
What is it about languages that we find simultaneously comforting and off-putting? Is it that language is so fundamental to communication, and communication is so fundamental to our interactions in and within society? Or, is it that language is a quick way of forming community and serves as an easy identifier as to whether one is in or out of the fold? Perhaps this voter was annoyed because he was not part of the Spanish-speaking set, or maybe he was irked that Spanish-speakers were not sufficiently part of his set as demonstrated by their persistent use of Spanish. Even so, it seemed a stunted hill to die on, the cause that only English should appear on a voting sticker. Given that my county has a large Spanish-speaking population, the dual-language approach seems a reasonable attempt to be inclusive.
To be fair, I have heard the argument that if we were to be truly inclusive, we would feature the languages of several immigrant groups on our fraught little "I Voted" stickers. I get the logic, which is tantamount to saying that unless we represent all the worthy people who move to our shores, we should represent almost none. In other words, since we cannot be maximally inclusive, we must be utterly exclusive. Remarkably, this argument has the distinction of being both a superb example of a slippery slope fallacy as well as a pristine instance of sacrificing the good on the altar of the perfect.
While English is by far its most common language, the U.S. has no official language, with Spanish as the second-most common tongue. This linguistic split also holds true in my county, where the largest city is more than fifty-percent Latinx. Therefore, printing "Yo Voté" along with "I Voted" on the sticker makes sense and does no harm. It serves as an invitation to our Spanish-speaking population to participate in the most fundamentally democratic right and rite-of-passage our republic has to offer. As for the claim, à la my recalcitrant voter, that "my grandparents had to learn English," while perhaps true, it is complicated by the reality of the varied communities that have immigrated here throughout history. Many such communities retained and replicated the customs, traditions, cuisine, practices, and, yes, languages of their home countries, thus enhancing the richness of today's culture. We can see vestiges of this phenomenon all over. Visit a "Germantown" of 100 years ago and you might observe business signs in German, hear the language spoken on the street exclusively, and read official documents and even street names all in German. In fact, just south of where I live, at least one town is home to a large ultra-orthodox Jewish community, where one can see an example of a cultural enclave. Or, visit Chinatown today in many major cities for a taste of what I am describing. Nonetheless, even if they did not receive that community help, I am sure my recalcitrant voter's grandparents would have welcomed a generous period during which they were able to speak their own language while they learned English, which is notoriously tricky to master, as I hope to one day.
On Election Day I could have said all this and much, much more, but I needed to move my vocal voter along. He was looking agitated, and his voice was angry even though I had tried to appear both as disinterested and as uninterested as possible. I guess he wanted me to agree with him, which itself could have been an inducement to keep on spouting. In the end, I could only go with the truth of the matter. With a look of profound incomprehension in my eyes and as much exasperation as I could muster, I shook my head and replied, "It's just a sticker, sir." He left then. Maybe my pleading tone embarrassed him a bit, but I doubt it. As he strode out the door, having surprisingly donned the dual-language decal, I processed the next voter, who welcomed her sticker with a gracious giggle.
Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows that I have a propensity to say things without much ornamentation. It is a habit I come by honestly, a family trait passed on from my parents to my brother and me. When I say I do not ornament my speech, that does not mean I am not prone to fits of hyperbole or casual sarcasm, being human and all. Nor does it mean that I get in people's faces or am rude or impulsive. I talk straight, meaning that when I speak, I tend not to evade the truth or facts as I see them, and I abhor misdirection and obfuscation. This straight talk is a sign of neither arrogance nor aggression. In fact, a wise straight talker will remain silent and listen when her or his version of the truth might fall flat or be counterproductive or hurtful. One of my personal guides is that only fools speak when there is nothing to say, which is not to suggest that I am not such a fool more often than I would care to quantify or admit.
Straight talk can be jarring to some who demand what they consider more diplomatic speech. Indeed, I can be diplomatic and quite deferential in my tone and diction when necessary, but that last qualifier is essential: when necessary. Diplomatic speech is vital to the success of, well, diplomacy. In other situations it can be off-putting, mystifying, dilatory, or downright misleading. The same can be said for euphemism. At times euphemism is absolutely the right choice for reasons of politeness, gentleness, or cultural sensitivity, but euphemism, when used as a matter of course, can be tantamount to guileful manipulation. It places the audience, particularly during conversation, in the subordinate position by imposing unwarranted verbal limitations. Similarly, political correctness can be disorienting, but there is a caveat here. While some extremes of what is deemed political correctness can be quite silly and while political correctness can feel constraining to many audiences, political correctness is also a way for individuals and groups to create and possess their own identifiers rather than subjugate themselves to those imposed by more dominant groups. And, lest you imagine that the politically correct are creatures solely of the left in the United States, think again. Labeling a middle-class married woman a "housewife" will likely and rightly cause offense and evoke indignation from watchers of MSNBC, but what response can you expect from wishing a Fox News fan "happy holidays" around Christmastime (or, for that matter, spelling the holiday Xmas, which warrants some research if you are unaware of the origins)?
What do diplomatic speech, euphemism, and political correctness have in common? All three have their uses, as I have noted, but all three have their abuses. The worst cases result is evasion and deception, willful or otherwise. But even when used properly and benignly, diplomatic speech, euphemism, and political correctness create a sense of insider-outsiderism. Much as with sarcasm, if you are not in on the lingo or do not understand why it is being applied in a situation, then you are de facto excluded—an outsider. The gratuitous use of jargon can have a similar effect.
Straight talk may also seem to have an inside-outsider quality for those who are not personally or culturally disposed or comfortable with it. Some will say that straight talk is too curt and off-putting, but that is never its intent and need-not be its effect. Straight talk is a way of cutting through the clutter of language. Like all forms of communication, it is severely hampered by the human limitations of perception that plague both the speaker and the listener, but straight talk is an attempt to be more direct and emphatic and is often greeted as refreshing and freeing. In conversation, it signals a willingness to drop pretense and evasion and cut to the chase, to say what you mean and mean what you say. It gives the opportunity to converse mutually without ritualizing the process. In fact, as a tool of diplomacy, it can eliminate delays and misunderstandings when wielded with integrity and skillfully for mutual benefit.
Again, straight talk is not about rudeness, insult, or dominance. Those are hallmarks of bullying, which sometimes masquerades as straight talk and is anything but. Bullying is about mastery and control certainly, but it is also about evasion. The bully eschews exposure as a coward and values winning above all else as though every circumstance were a zero-sum game. Straight talk, by contrast, is a form of verbal collaboration for creating win-win scenarios. It evinces deep respect and regard and a willingness to share on an equal footing. The straight talker is not seeking to oppress or intimidate but to accommodate and welcome straight talk in response. The straight talker strives to maximize honesty and transparency and therefore is rendering her or himself most vulnerable in the exchange. Talking straight, unlike bullying, runs a risk because it seeks to remove the veils that conceal individuals from each other and too often from themselves.
Nonetheless, as a veteran and dedicated straight talker, I find the risk is worth it. Who wants to live in a world in which everyone habitually and relentlessly obscures meaning? Language and communication are slippery enough without the added liability of volitional evasion. Straight talk is not always the best tool and is sometimes inappropriate or ineffective, but as a norm it cuts down on the nonsense and frees participants in a conversation to come to terms as painlessly and effortlessly as possible. Straight talk is not perfect. Like its political cousin, democracy, though, it is the worst form of communication except for all those others.
Try to picture a conformist in action. We will call him William.
William is a follower, someone who is forever riding on the bandwagon and never driving. William adheres to standards because, well, they are standards, and he adores traditions. William is ever conventional because the unconventional is to him uncomfortable and even at times offensive. William is neither adrift nor passive. Despite appearances, conformity is a proactive mode and can be hard work. A conformist, such as William, does not float with the tide. He swims with it because it is stupid to resist. William buys the trendiest sneakers because the are trendy. He has no pronounced tastes of his own but he is convinced they look great since everyone is wearing them. William chuckles and scoffs at people who wear other shoes.
If William were an animal, he would be an impala, a ubiquitous southern African antelope that is easily identified with a large figure M on its rump. Safari guides may tell you that the M stands for McDonalds because, like the restaurant chain, the impala is a reliable source of nourishment and can be found on every corner. When you see an impala in the wild (and you will), it will either be in a herd or dead. The impala runs with the herd for protection and companionship and eats a consistent diet of plant parts. The individual impala takes no risks, and the herd certainly does not. The impala plays it safe, relying on numbers and speed to escape enemies. That does not mean the impala has no fun. Herds of impala may frolic together and play and even fight, but one herd member is always cautiously on the lookout for danger. The impala are so consistent that they drink water and even give birth at the time of day least likely to attract predators. With any threat, the impala herd will bolt in an instant and scatter with tremendous leaps to disappear into the brush. William is an impala. And, William eats at McDonalds too, not because he likes it better than other places, but because it’s familiar, easy, and where everyone else eats.
Now think of a contrarian. Let’s call her Trudy, keeping in mind that there are many fewer Trudys than Williams.
If Trudy sees a crowd on the march, she heads the other way. Trudy swims against the tide, often making a big show as she flails about. In fact, she does not like popular beach vacations and prefers staying home to work in her garden, which is "at least doing something useful." She must labor at her contrarianism, which she takes very seriously and is hence not much fun to be around. She is not a misanthrope, but she just hates going along with the throng. Strict adherence to traditions are for losers and followers. Trudy rarely goes to see the fireworks on Independence Day and has not put up a Christmas tree in years. Everyone else does that, so why should she? Trudy checks out the latest trendy footwear. She may even find the look appealing, but everyone is wearing them. She chuckles and scoffs before buying something else.
If Trudy were an animal, she would be the infamous honey badger. Aggressive and solitary, the honey badger is a sharp contrast to the passive and social impala. I do not mean to suggest that Trudy or other conformists are aggressive, only to point up the contradistinction. Honey badgers work hard for their differences. Their only fun seems to be in reeking mayhem as, for instance, when they attack barnyard fowl and kill more than what they need or when they take over the borrows of other animals despite being superb diggers themselves. In addition, unlike the impala, there are no honey badger packs. The individual honey badger can and will fight even much larger predators, including lions, and has the added defensive ability to disperse a noxious odor from a gland if in danger. The honey badger is a risk taker. As for food, the honey badger enjoys honey, to be sure, but eats just about anything: insects, rodents, lizards, fruit, roots, etc. In short, the honey badger is just the opposite of the impala, and that is the point of contrarianism: to be contrary, to do the opposite as a matter of course. Trudy's diet, by the way, is probably less varied than the honey badger's. For instance, she would not eat McDonalds, but make no mistake. She enjoys the Big Mac just fine, but she prefers driving a bit further to eat at Bojangles', which has shorter lines. Finally, notwithstanding assurances from the viral video that "the honey badger don't give a shit," Trudy certainly does give a shit, perhaps even more so than the William.
So, what is the difference between the conformist and the contrarian, the impala and the honey badger? The impala and the honey badger contend with exactly the same things in their environment but in near-diametrically opposed ways. The impala moves in herds, the honey badger largely alone. The impala plays it safe, the honey badger not so much. The impala flees from danger, and the honey badger charges. The impala eats a limited diet, and the honey badger eats everything. Their reactions are different, but their drivers are the same. Still, what drives William and Trudy? Both respond to what is trending and what is popular and make their decisions according to their disposition, one in favor of the trend and one opposed. They are entirely reactive if not reactionary, and at times equally knee-jerk. As a practical matter, the only difference between the choices of the conformist and the contrarian is the outcome, which are equally predictable.
Contrarians often present themselves to and are perceived by the world as independent thinkers or even iconoclasts, and I have tried to demonstrate that they are anything but. Independent thinkers may take in all the same information—for instance, what is trending, what is not—but they go beyond simply binaries and fold in, well, whatever they want. They may go with the trend. They may reject it. They may find another option. There is no good animal analog for the independent thinker because there is no single model for the independent thinker. They can range from the less-than rigorous outlier on one extreme to the rigorous critical thinker to the true maverick or iconoclast on the other extreme. They can be leaders, loners, or the loyal opposition. To whatever degree, the independent thinker is marked by a lack of easily predictive reactivity.
While I admit to a bias toward the independent thinker, in our society the conformist and the contrarian certainly have their roles and their utility along with the independent thinker. My point is to demonstrate how the contrarian and the independent thinker are just two sides of the same coin. All too often, contrarians are held up to the world as bold thinkers. We hear this claim when some ignorant people deny well-established science, such as with the science of climate change. There are a few scientists who renounce the human causes and the consequences of climate change. Their supporters will point out that famous scientists like Einstein also bucked the establishment, but the comparison is weak. Einstein was a maverick and iconoclast, not a contrarian. He did not look at the establishment and pick the opposite stance. He applied rigorous thinking and self-awareness to forge new paths in areas of science that were not as easily verifiable or readily observable (and, in fact, not nearly as universally accepted) as climate science. In short, he was not simply reactive but was thoughtful and thorough in his analysis and left open the prospect that he could be wrong. His method was even more important than his conclusions and contributed to the accuracy of those conclusions. His methodology indicates that he was neither a conformist nor a contrarian but was an independent thinker.
The contrarian, though, is not driven by careful thought or the objective search for truth. The contrarian and the conformist are simply reactors to the same stimuli, no matter how the contrarian presents him or herself to the world. If the impala/honey badger analogy is a stretch for you, think of sheep and wolves. We have all heard the story of the wolf that infiltrates the sheep herd disguised as a sheep. But, imagine the sheep is a conformist, and the wolf is a contrarian. The sheep and the wolf would then lead their lives much as conformists and contrarians, reacting to the same drivers, albeit in antithetical fashions. Is the wolf so different then? If not, we must conclude that a contrarian is nothing more than than a conformist in disguise. The conformist is, indeed, a sheep in wolf's clothing.
“...yes I said yes I will Yes.”
This piece is about the power of positive leadership.
As a boss, I have long practiced a philosophy I call "always start with yes." It involves a simple shift in attitude away from negativity and ambiguity and toward prudent positivity.
Let's imagine a broadly sketched scenario together. You are a supervisor or group leader, and one of the people who reports to you has a request. You must analyze that request within the context of several concerns, some of which the employee may be wholly unaware. For instance, perhaps you manage a budget, or perhaps there are implications regarding the purpose or mission of your organization. How do you handle the request?
Unfortunately, whatever their natural disposition, too many leaders see their primary duty as protecting resources such as money and workers' time. While these resources are vital and should not be squandered, they exist for a reason: to further the ends of the organization. Treating them like coins in a piggy bank, as though once spent they are gone, is unwise. Resource management is not a zero-sum game Good bosses invest resources while husbanding them closely. One of the resources that is most difficult to identify and impossible to measure is good will and the trust it engenders, but it is also among the most valuable if managed correctly. All too often, perhaps because it is so etherial, leaders squander good will in the name of protecting the more measurable resources, like money.
One way to counter this impulse is to start with yes.
In the scenario I laid out before, you could greet the employee's request one of three primary ways. The first is to view it as hostile to the smooth operation you have so carefully cultivated, as an attempt, however unintended, to rock your boat. Most people are not so narrow-minded as to take this stance as a default, but it is easy to reactively move to the negative position as a means to preserve the vaunted status quo.
The second response is possibly more common and involves meeting the request with a mushy maybe, which is almost alway tantamount to saying no but tends to introduce ambiguity and misgivings into a situation. The choice of terminology, whether you say "maybe," "possibly," "we'll see," or "I'll get back to you," is irrelevant. The sentiment is always the same. Saying maybe may convey a promise of consideration, deliberation, or even hope, but it really means that you are stringing someone along in order to either have the suggestion die of neglect or to find a way to say no down the line. Just saying no may be harsh and reactionary, but saying maybe is even more often just a lie.
When starting with no or maybe is the default, it makes getting to yes nearly impossible. If that is your intent, congratulations, but habitually leading with no or maybe, will most often lead to a culture of mistrust and demoralization. You may be able to ameliorate this disfunction through other means, but you will expend a great deal of your own resources to achieve little in the end. Reactively starting with no or maybe might preserve your quantifiable resources in the short run, but over time many resources, both countable and uncountable, will attrite into oblivion.
Starting with yes requires, first, a shift in attitude and a subsequent shift in approach. Again, this is not about being a pushover. Quite the contrary. It is a strategy to empower and embolden employees in a positive and productive way while asserting and maintaining your own authority—goals that should not be anathema to any boss or organization. If you are inclined to manage people using raw authority, your impressive title, or brute force, this approach is not for you. And godspeed to your underlings. Consequently, starting with yes only works if it is a part of an overall open approach to leadership.
Starting with yes is simple. It presumes that interactions, any interactions, with employees and colleagues are opportunities for positive relationship building. It is not a naive outlook, though it may affect a naive stance, and is in fact quite canny.
In the scenario I sketched, a start-with-yes approach would open a conversation while requiring you to be fully open to the possibility of yes. Yes should be the default opener. In the conversation, you lay out all the relevant facts for your employee, who can then help you reach a decision or better understand your ultimate judgment if it is not favorable.
Here is a slightly more fleshed out scenario to consider.
Mary is Tom's supervisor. Tom has an idea on how to approach a key process more efficiently. Mary knows that the process their company uses is well established and that, while not as efficient as she would like, it works. She also knows that tinkering with that system could be politically fraught, and she is concerned about burning capital on a new idea. If Mary is a no person, then problem solved. She shoots him down, and he goes on his way. Of course, she may have just passed on a transformational idea and the personal benefit of its halo effect. Also, if saying no is her default, she risks promoting ill-will and mistrust and creating a different sort of problem. Her employees, over time, will come to resent her. They will keep their ideas to themselves. Mary will become the prime evaluator and the sole source of innovation, and, unless she is a solitary genius, progress and productivity will slow.
Let's play this out with Mary as a maybe person. This time, she tells Tom that she will take his idea under consideration. If he is new or has little experience with Mary, he may take her at her word. Inevitably, though, it will become clear that "maybe" is just a dilatory "no." If this keeps up, then Mary's maybes will have the exact same effect as saying no except that her employees will grow even more resentful that she will not level with them. See previous paragraph for consequences.
But, what if Mary is a yes person? Does she automatically give Tom the green light with no consideration? Of course not. What she will do is offer positive encouragement and understand that she now has several options. This is not a simply reactive response but is the beginning of a thoughtful process: hence, prudent positivity. One favorite possibility is to charge Tom with researching and pursuing the idea himself and even offering him modest resources as necessary without promising any particular outcome. Another option is to charge someone else or a group with studying the possibilities or doing so herself, again, without promising any particular outcome. The key here is that Mary's response must be sincerely positive while projecting shrewd discernment. She must take Tom's idea seriously and honestly pursue it without being credulous. Doing so will almost certainly require a commitment from Mary and may even constitute a burden on her or others. If Tom's idea is good, then the extra effort is worth it. If it fails, Mary and Tom will seek to learn from the failure. Either way, Mary and the organization gain from the good will Mary has generated with Tom and with others. In short order, Mary's continued benevolence will accrete and become a powerful and bountiful resource in good times and bad.
Sometimes, though, an employee's idea is just untenable on its face. Perhaps it was tried before and and did not succeed or requires resources beyond the capabilities of the organization or will trigger a political backlash in the organization. If for some good reason Tom's idea is simply a nonstarter, Mary will explain precisely why she must reject it as fully as she is able and urge him to continue to come up with more ideas. Her reputation for candor and transparency will again work to her benefit.
Certainly this approach will not be appropriate in every situation and with every employee. Organizations are human endeavors and are as imperfect as those who comprise them. The point is to create a culture of trust that originates at the top. Sometimes you may find that you will begin with a sincere yes but must end with a hard no. That is just fine so long as there is an honest analysis and a mutual understanding of the reasons behind the final decision. The point is to lead with a positive attitude toward the ideas and requests that may come your way. Do not treat them as distractions from what you perceive as your normal work or, worse still, problems to be dismissed or solved. Instead, recognize and embrace the fact that receiving employee requests is a significant part of any manager's job. It's really not as hard as many may have been led to believe and will reap dividends in innovation, productivity, and trust that you and your organization can profit from for years to come.
"Decent" is a slippery word, which does not exactly qualify it for stand-out status within the English lexicon. On the one hand "decent" just means mediocre, acceptable. A grade of 'C' is decent. If someone says that their team has a decent chance of winning, save your money. It is not a full-throated endorsement of a sure bet. A decent song is one that I will not complain about but do not care if I ever hear again. A decent television show is one to watch if there is nothing else on. No one will be pleased to drive a long distance or pay a lot of money just for a decent meal. Decent is good enough and nothing more.
On the other hand, "decent" as a mark of character is high praise. Saying that someone is decent indicates that they have a goodness of spirit, honesty, and integrity. I may not agree with a given politician, but if I deem her a decent woman, I am suggesting that I respect her rectitude if not her opinions or convictions. Saying an actor is only a decent performer but is also a decent person is neither redundant nor contradictory. It offers faint praise for the actor's thespian prowess even as it commends the actor's personal righteousness.
So, in one sense, as a broad descriptor, "decent" means "good enough" while on the other, as an assessment of human behavior and motivation, it means "better than good." (I told you, slippery.) Obviously, achieving decency in the first sense is the definition of unremarkable. Achieving decency in the second is a mark of distinction, particularly in our current environment of rampant indecency.
This latter sort of decency of character can be exemplified by a particular episode that took place in an organization when the longtime CEO was in her last year before retirement. This CEO was a woman of deep conviction and honesty. In short, she was a decent woman. In her last year, the organization committed to a multiyear contract with a vendor that promised to help put the organization on a whole new economic footing while maintaining its focus on its mission. The CEO and her staff probed this offer in every way, including contacting the vendor's current clients, and, while they learned that the road might be rough, they were assured that any struggles would be well rewarded.
Instead, the vendor was unwilling or unable to deliver on its promises. In addition, and more troubling, the vendor pressured the organization's staff to commit to directions that were perilous to the organization and to its ability to deliver on its mission. Upon learning of this looming crisis, the CEO first sought to reset the agreement with the vendor, but the vendor failed to meet the terms of the revised contract as well. She then negotiated to rescind the contract altogether after that first year, thus sparing the organization unnecessary struggles and sparing her successor as CEO the burden of an untenable contract.
Think of the wherewithal her action required. The CEO first had to accept and admit that the arrangement with the vendor, however well intentioned, was in error and that she herself had been mistaken. She further had to convince herself that despite strategizing and budgeting around the tantalizing promise of financial rewards for the organization, the promise was empty. Now the organization had to make up for a budget shortfall. Had the contract been successful, it would have sealed her legacy as a CEO, so breaking the contract must have required an extraordinary act of self-discipline. Indeed, she scuttled the deal as almost the final act of her longtime career in leadership. It was the right thing to do and could not have been easy to present to her board. The correct decision required a leader with a core of fundamental decency who was more interested in the ongoing mission of the organization than she was in securing a legacy or protecting herself.
In a counter example, a CEO at another organization discovered, upon taking office, that the organization was in dire financial straights. To his credit, he worked with his team to devise techniques to keep the organization afloat. He did not, though, devise a strategy for moving past its precarious state, and those emergency actions quickly hardened into norms. Over years, they became sacrosanct practices, "the way we do things," and any effort to undo or even question the efficacy of those norms was met with extreme hostility and even viciousness. Anyone who proposed or sought to modify the practices was suppressed or purged, no matter their intention or approach. The organization's mission was subordinate to the practices that had been established. This CEO did not have the wherewithal to unwind the web of emergency actions he had undertaken because he did not possess a decent character. His method was to bluster, distract, and bully to get things done the same old way even though he was accomplishing little—all symptoms of his rampant indecency. The overall quality of the organization itself, inevitably, diminished with no hope of improvement due to the CEO and his team's fecklessness and malevolence.
The CEO in the first example was inherently decent and possessed the integrity to make difficult decisions even when they might reflect badly on her. The CEO in the second example was truly indecent. While he rose admirably to face the crisis early in his tenure, that effort exhausted his stock of mettle. Hence, one organization could continue to be excellent and deliver on its mission while the other inexorably sunk below the mark of mediocrity and could not fulfill its primary objective. It was less than decent.
So, human decency engenders excellence, which should not be surprising. A wise man said that "excellence is the result of habitual integrity" (often attributed to Lennie Bennett). Since decency and integrity are merely separate words to represent a person's inner strength and potency of character, it is not surprising that both describe the ingredient necessary to foster excellence in all we do.
A paper delivered at Jonathan Swift in the 21st Century, 2018 Jay I. Kislak Symposium, The University of Pennsylvania, 23 February 2017.
Consider such works as A Tale of a Tub, A Modest Proposal, or the materials associated with the Bickerstaff hoax. In addition to their artistic, cultural, and historical value, each constitutes first-rate trolling from the 21st-century perspective. Swift was, in fact, a troll of the highest order, working within the most technologically advanced social medium of his day—printed prose and poetry.
While terming such works "trolling" risks trivializing them, what is trenchant satire if not trolling of a kind? Indeed, the best of 21st-century trolling is satiric performance across media and genres, and not just social media. It seeks to expose, subvert, and vex, thus provoking a response that further lays bare the subject, an objective matched by much of Swift's satiric output.
For readers, the venom of Swift's satire, having traveled across three centuries, tends to grow inert, even fatuous, but viewing Swift through the lens of contemporary trolling can re-intensify the perceived acrimony that pervades his satiric work. It also provides insight into the purposes and methodologies of better present-day trolling. Could some troll, perhaps more literary and less ephemeral than typical, soon emerge as a latter-day Swift? Most pertinently, though, perceiving the troll at the core of Jonathan Swift offers insight into his contemporary impact and his preferred insider audience.
First let’s examine the phenomenon of trolling. Often, trolling is associated with social media, but its scope is far more expansive. For instance, a common observation is that the president of these United States sometimes uses his Twitter account to troll the press, the public, or other enemies. But, it is not too far-fetched to suggest that his trolling activities extend far beyond the Twitter platform. In fact, some of his most troll-like behavior has occurred during public appearances —press conferences, meetings, signing ceremonies, speeches, and the like. Whatever your politics, it is impossible to disassociate President Trump’s more outlandish statements and performances from trolling.
At their worst, trolls are associated with narcissism and sadism. As Jennifer Golbeck writes in Psychology Today, “An Internet troll is someone who comes into a discussion and posts comments designed to upset or disrupt the conversation. Often, in fact, it seems like there is no real purpose behind their comments except to upset everyone else involved. Trolls will lie, exaggerate, and offend to get a response.” (Jennifer Golbeck. “Internet Trolls Are Narcissists, Psychopaths, and Sadists.” Psychology Today. September 18, 2014.)
While trolling is most often deeply negative, it is not always so. More broadly, it involves deploying some degree of anonymity or a persona to disrupt or subvert one’s perceived ideological enemies. It can be playful, cruel, or simply manipulative. Judith Donath, in a paper from 1999, observes that “Trolling is a game about identity deception, albeit one that is played without the consent of most of the players.” The troll deceives in the service of the truth or a truth or some extremely localized version of truth. Trolls could be primarily satirist, parodists, ironists, propagandists, or mere hoaxers. Trolling is, usually, a commentary intended to critique or expose some perceived flaw, challenge a position or assumption, and/or advance a corrective. Trolls utilize humor, irony, parody, hyperbole, etc., and are most happy when they have been most vexing to most of the audience or to a target audience.
In short, trolls have a whole lot in common with satirists, including the frequent use of irony. In fact, irony in both trolling and satirizing are used as covers for all manner of excess and insult. If one were to conceive a Venn diagram of trolling in juxtaposition with satire, the overlap would be significant.
So, was Jonathan Swift a troll in his time?
Swift’s poetry would be a rich source, too rich to be adequately addressed here. In terms of Swift’s prose, among his trolliest works are A Tale of a Tub, A Modest Proposal, and, undoubtedly the pieces known collectively as The Bickerstaff Papers, which we should address at some length.
In A Tale of a Tub, Swift adopts the persona of the modern enthusiast bent on transmitting his extended religious allegory while digressing lengthily on various topics of grave concern. He then added the apparatus of footnotes, his own and others’ commentaries, as well as Edmund Curll’s dubious Notes on the Tale, which lend the work a scholarly air and which is offset by the overcooked allegory and the ostensibly superfluous digressions. The punchline in this wonderfully sophisticated lark is set up in the conclusion with the grave observation that it is the same with “profound writers” as with a well, which is presumed “wondrous Deep, upon no wiser a Reason than because it is wondrous Dark.” Immediately thereafter we learn that the author has all along sought to “write upon Nothing; When the Subject is utterly exhausted, to let the Pen still move on; by some called, the Ghost of Wit, delighting to walk after the Death of the Body.”
To reduce A Tale of a Tub to this elaborately protracted joke—that the Tale itself is meaningless and that the reader has wasted time and brainpower reading it—is not supportable, but the exasperation the joke evokes anticipates the reactions present-day trolls relish. Similarly, the prolix digressions, the overwrought allegory, the pseudo-scholarly apparatus, and even the tenebrous title all contribute to the reader’s building vexation. Any of us who have presented A Tale of a Tub in the typical undergraduate classroom knows that today’s readers struggle mightily with the discursive prose. It is, in fact, a work only a literature nerd could love. One may long to identify as its preferred audience, but that audience is paradoxically the butt of the very joke that only that audience gets. The work is at once discursive, recursive, and subversive. Through intentional evasiveness, misdirection, and obfuscation, it resists, eschews, and denies meaning. For today’s readers to encounter a venerable author’s earliest great work only to learn that they have been set up all along is nettlesome, indeed. For they have been trolled.
Swift’s trolling also significantly manifests in A Modest Proposal some two decades later. While it may escape the notice of the casual reader, Swift’s Modest Proposer famously starts with what can fairly be described as a humblebrag: “whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the common wealth, would deserve so well of the publick, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.” This seemingly generous observation is, in fact, as self-serving as the title of the work itself. The humblebrag is practiced far and wide, but it is often a troll’s move, dripping with intentional or unintentional irony. Witness Donald Trump’s infamous tweet after the Orlando nightclub massacre: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don't want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!” (June 12, 2016). As many others have observed, Donald Trump may be the most accomplished troll in existence.
The Proposer trolls the hapless reader by launching with an ostensible reasonableness before slipping subtly into increasingly outlandish claims and suggestions and culminating in a lengthy list of apparently serious-minded schemes. In this way, satire meets trolling, and a tone of bullying, cast ironically, pervades the Proposal, which is more than “a little bordering upon cruelty.” Whatever the Proposer’s scruples concerning the consumption of children as old as twelve, his gastronomical indulgence in the delights of dressing infant flesh “to perfection” is bizarre and mean-spirited. Furthermore, his frequent digs against the Irish Catholic poor ring out like so many nasty tweets, whether it be the potential competition of Irish “breeders” to “bring the fattest child to the market,” the inducement to men no longer “to beat or kick [their wives] (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a miscarriage,” or his observation that his plan will suffice “for this one individual Kingdom of Ireland, and for no other that ever was, is, or, I think, ever can be upon Earth.”
But the poor Irish do not face the Proposer’s opprobrium alone. The list of reasonable solutions, among other passages, inherently indicts Swift’s fellow Anglicans in power in Dublin. More famously, the very English themselves—often erroneously presumed the only or primary target of Swift’s satire—are, indeed, the inhabitants of that “country, which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without” salt. More subtly, the very structure and tone of the “Proposal” itself parodies the technocratic projects of Protestant Dissenters. In short, A Modest Proposal assaults all, with its author masked by a parodic persona, bitter irony, and satire to avoid blame and shame for his conceptual and verbal excesses. In other words, he is a troll.
As with A Tale of a Tub, the insider audience has a role here. To read A Modest Proposal well and in the spirit of the work is to be complicit in its excesses—however ironic. Again, this complicity correlates with the present-day troll’s insider audience.
Obviously, other Swift satires represent degrees of trolling, but I want to focus the rest of my time on an early and exuberant example of trolling: Swift’s invention of Isaac Bickerstaff in 1708 and his relentless assault on John Partridge, the almanac maker.
To rehearse the events, Swift devised the persona Isaac Bickerstaff to ridicule Partridge through a canny application of what can be identified as early eighteenth-century fake news. Instead of Twitter or Facebook, Swift used a popular medium of his day—the almanac—and led his mock prognostications with “but a Trifle”: Partridge’s death on March 29th, just in time for some April 1st high jinks.
The historical record regarding Swift’s hoax, Partridge’s response, the consequences, and subsequent companion publications is rife with rumor, misdirection, and wishful conjecture—the troll’s tools of the trade. Some juicy items are extant on the internet but have origins far older. For instance, you can look to the prolific William Eddy in 1932 to learn—right or wrong—that the name “John Partridge” was itself a nom de plume for cobbler “John Hewson.” The Dictionary of National Biography famously claims that the Company of Stationers owned the right to the Partridge name and stripped John Partridge or Hewson or whatever his name of his privilege to publish almanacs with the pseudonym upon—among other authorities—the notion that he was dead. The DNB also repeats the claim that the Portuguese Inquisition, upon learning that the first Bickerstaffian prediction came true, burned the pamphlet.
More luridly, there is the claim that Partridge was gay, which is not to say that Partridge was really John Gay, but that John Partridge was himself gay. I admit I have not researched this possibility more than to follow the internet lead. You can see him listed on a UK wiki called LGBT Archive, which cites Ranker.com’s list of Famous Gay Men. Ranker, for its part, cites an authority it no doubt finds unimpeachable . . . Ranker.com. And so the eternal circle of internet authority remains unbroken.
The Bickerstaff brand, if you will, gained its own notoriety, being adopted by a series of tongue-in-cheek authors, Swift’s clearest insider audience. Of course, Richard Steele used the name Isaac Bickerstaff in The Tatler, either as a homage to his then-friend Swift and/or as an exploitation of the joke. Thus, “Isaac Bickerstaff” was reused, recycled, and refurbished in his day. Each iteration was a poke at Partridge, a reference back to the Partridge death hoax, and a signal that here be an attempt at wit. In other words, the name “Isaac Bickerstaff” operated as a meme, which means that the Predictions and its companion pieces were one of the most enduring trollings in history, with their subject rendered a fool for all time. And it was a right-good All Fools Day hoax.
To recap: Swift invented Isaac Bickerstaff to mock John Partridge—via fake news!—and incite him to injudicious reaction. Partridge—a fake name!—obliged and became even more ridiculous for the exchange. Not Swift’s greatest literary contribution, but a fine example of Swiftian trolling: skill level - expert.
Aside from the medium and the literary value, it takes some effort to discern a fundamental difference between the operation of some of Swift’s work and much present-day trolling. This is particularly true with regard to the Bickerstaff hoax, which engendered the sort of frenzied piling-on trolls try to incite and seem to delight in. To this day the hoax and its consequences are subject to misinformation and exaggeration. How many of us in this room have heard at some point—sometimes even from an authoritative source—that a court declared John Partridge officially dead even after he testified to his ongoing existence? As a famous politician says a lot, “Fake news, folks! Fake news!”
So, if much of Swift’s satiric output bears a resemblance to present-day trolling, what does that tell us about Swift? Perhaps nothing particularly new, but it can foreground the more execrable side of Swift. Jennifer Golbeck’s Psychology Today piece describes a Canadian study that strongly correlates internet trolls with what psychologists call the “Dark Tetrad” of narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and sadism, which is, of course, one pathology worse than the more famous “Dark Triad.” I would not suggest that Swift manifested the Dark Tetrad or the Dark Triad any more than I would all internet trolls, and I have no interest or training in psychoanalyzing him or them. But he certainly displayed some of these traits at various times in his life and in his satire.
To be sure, there is a degree of cruelty underlying some of his satires, including the ones I explored here. Whether it be cruelty toward his various satiric targets or even against his audience, there is a sadistic delight one can sense. Swift was a troll, plainly put, but not like a Russian operative sowing dissent and confusion to subvert an election. His trolling is more akin to the alt-right—not in content, but somewhat in style. The alt-right fires its volleys at perceived enemies and then, often, hides behind claims of irony to evade responsibility. President Trump has relied on a similar ploy. How many times have we been told that some of his more outlandish claims were actually jokes, which implies that those who don’t get the jokes are somehow remiss? In reality, though, these jokes—even if they are not entirely serious statements—send messages to an insider audience. At their worst, they are sometimes “dog whistles” to an extremist base.
Swift, similarly, speaks to an insider audience. Sometimes it is his friends, and often it is just those who get his message. No one wants to be the outsider, then or now. This insight can tell us something about how we read Swift’s work, particularly his most cutting satire. We chuckle at his nasty swipes against the Irish poor in A Modest Proposal or against the hapless John Partridge and thus become the insider audience. As such, we become complicit in the cruelty, imagining that the clever irony vindicates the viciousness. I am not taking a moral stance here, but I am trying to show that this is exactly how trolling works: it exposes its targets to thrill its insider audience. We can also see that, like present-day trolling, whatever its literary or historical value, Swift’s satire sought to disrupt, subvert, and vex. His satiric goal sowed disorder to interrupt the normal flow and—one imagines he hoped—to reset the cultural-political order. In this way, we can see that there is nothing new about trolling. So long as there have been satirists, like Swift, there have probably been trolls.
So, in the Bickerstaff spirit, I will make a prediction. In the first week of April in this year 2018, a most famous personage in the United States will tweet a tweet that will bewilder everyone. Covfefe.
Cocktail Party Instruction: The notion that an education is primarily the inculcation of content-based knowledge that will make a student more "culturally literate" and conversant in a number of subjects. The name comes from the fact that such knowledge is of little use outside superficial setting, such as social gatherings and Jeopardy matches. Furthermore, the notion that education is an accretion of factoids sets an utterly unattainable (and not particularly desirable) goal--the accumulation of all knowledge without due consideration for the development of skills to process that knowledge. The simple fact is that students could not possibly absorb enough content in four year or even forty years.
Coverage vs. Uncovering: A distinction often overlooked in the rote rush to convey content in totality or create a student knowledge base at the expense of critical skills development. "Coverage" is primarily a teacher-based concern. "Uncoverage" is, by contrast, more of a student-based concern because it deemphasizes the hegemony of particular material and emphasizes students learning how to find and think about any material they encounter in the class or out, now or ever. At its most extreme, misplacing this priority can take the form of Fake Rigor.
These two concepts, Cocktail Party Instruction and Coverage vs. Uncovering, are related and therefore can be treated together. Both, when abused, have to do with content-intensive (and teacher-focused) pedagogy that privileges the what over the why and even the how. Sometimes they can be associated with particular academic disciplines, but they also correlate with the use of standard textbooks and anthologies and the employment of multiple choice and short answer tests as a primary means of student assessment. Neither does much to encourage students to enter into a dialogue with academic material and practitioners, much less produce new knowledge, now or ever.
Cocktail Party Instruction has much to do with what used to be called “cultural fluency,” the idea that to be a properly educated citizen one must have exposure to and knowledge of key facts and artifacts. There is a close association between this form of instruction and the so-called literary canon, which has purported to identify particular literary texts that are most valued by our culture and hence indispensable. Literature survey courses are an vestige of this assumption. Elsewhere in the humanities, this type of instruction might result in history's courses built around dates, important figures, and momentous events (useually financial upheavals and wars). In the sciences it might appear as a slavish adherence to rote memorization and preordained application, such as in a laboratory where student “experiments” consist of little more than multiple reenactments with canned results.
Similarly, Coverage has to do with an associated body of knowledge within a discipline but more focused on movement through a specific discipline than with meeting cultural norms. Simply put, Coverage focuses on completing the textbook and/or the syllabus on schedule rather than adjusting the pace of delivery and even not addressing material in order to facilitate student learning. Uncovering goes further by emphasizing the development of student skills and habits that will teach students to learn rather than to absorb (and regurgitate) material. For example, Coverage may dictate that because ten Shakespeare sonnets appear on the syllabus (or in the anthology!) for this week, students must slog through all ten in class even if they comprehend little. Uncovering, on the other hand, would allow the instructor to concentrate on fewer poems than assigned so that students may better understand how to read Shakespeare’s sonnets. If the students are good with ten, that is fine too. The teacher can make that assessment on behalf of student learning. The first approach all but guarantees most students will not be able to read on their own. The second helps assure that they could read on their own and, ideally, they may even want to. So, yes, they may not read as much at first, but they will read better.
While both Cocktail Party Instruction and Coverage emphasize a both of knowledge that students must have, even without comprehension, it is remarkable what always gets left out. Namely, historically oppressed or ignored people, peoples, and ideas. For instance, women, minorities, foreign norms, nonmainstream religions, languages, and controversies of all sorts. These items are invariably omitted from or abridged in the official body of knowledge to the detriment of all.
What is more, the political argument aside, no body of knowledge can ever be complete or truly representative. Therefore, to pretend that there is some universally agreed upon and finite set of facts and concepts is dishonest and irresponsible. It resists learning and encourages and rewards cramming and forgetting. Any mature student knows intuitively that the more one learns the more one finds more to learn. Learning is a never-ending process. It does not stop at the end of a term or upon graduation, or at least it should not. No learner is ever “complete.” The best teachers see their duty as teaching students to uncover knowledge, to learn.
Here is a cocktail party alternative. From time to time, literary scholars will play a little game in which they admit to some great or famous or canonical piece of literature they have not read. How is it possible that such erudite individuals could have overlooked The Great Gatsby or The Iliad? Were they avoiding difficult works, or was there a flaw in their otherwise impeccable educations. Frankly, the answer is that no one can get around to reading everything. Not a big surprise, I am sure, but someone always gasps as though I have a character flaw whenever I cop to the fact that I have never read nor seen Macbeth. I have not avoided the play, but I just have not read it or had the opportunity to attend a performance (and, yes, I know a version is in movie theaters now). The fact remains, though, that I could read and enjoy and understand the play at any time because I developed that skill many years ago by reading Shakespeare (and viewing his plays) and reading other authors in a variety of literature classrooms and on my own. I can uncover Macbeth and a host of other literary works at will. Why would I deny my students the same pleasure just to meet an arbitrary standard? I would rather they not read Macbeth in my class so that they may learn to read Macbeth better in the future. That is the distinction I draw and the choice I make for their benefit.
Now, I have to go to the movie theater.
CLARITY TRUMPS EVERYTHING: a concept fundamental to writing and all communication. Nothing—not convention, not formula, not even grammar—is more critical to a writer than clear communication directly to the reader.
Of course, this principle applies to all forms of communication, verbal and nonverbal, and gets to the crux of the human dilemma—that we are an inherently social species who need to convey all sorts of messages to one another for all sorts of reasons and yet cannot clearly and directly communicate our thoughts. Even the simplest messages are misconstrued, and our plethora of languages and cultures compound the problem. I do not have to dwell on this obvious fact.
Nonetheless, it remains imperative that humans focus on producing clear communication, however futile the effort. Clarity is futile.
Still, when teaching college writers, I drive this point home, that clarity trumps everything. Inexperienced writers often slog through their prose, stymied by their own insecurities and the weight of a thousand rules—real and fabricated—imposed by well-meaning teachers for whom a rule well-followed is more important than a thought well-communicated.
At the risk of appearing to erect a straw man, I want to address any objections that the rules of grammar are meant to help clarify the expression of our thoughts. First, the rules of grammar are not “meant” to do anything. They are simply the codification of convention, which is why they change as the conventions change. They are not immutable laws of the universe or abstract truths or religious doctrine. Also, as I suggested, perfectly grammatical constructions can still interfere with clarity. Here are a couple of glaring examples:
Is that clear?
These sentences are the sort that teachers might label "awkward" out of sheer exasperation. (The second one, by the way, is from Bob Dylan's song “Tell Me, Momma,” and I acknowledge that he is cleverly playing in these convoluted lines.)
Here is one that attempts to follow a “rule” (do not end a clause in a preposition—a manufactured rule, by the way) but ultimately serves up a pile of corned beef hash with a side of rank pedantry:
Or how about this masterpiece of embedded confusion:
The woman is a dentist. The man is dating her. My brother also sees that man. Awkward!
These examples offer extremes that have obvious fixes, and one could mine the annals of literary theory for some truly bizarre constructions. More to my point, though, and beyond the scope of my examples, sometimes bending or even violating the rules of grammar is advantageous to clear communication.
The fact remains that all aspects of the writing process and all elements of the written piece must serve to maximize clarity, including grammar. The planning, organizational logic, diction, syntax, style, etc., when correct, improve the audience’s understanding. And one of the most import benefits of emphasizing clarity to novice writers is that it helps them focus on the audience, which is paramount.
Even in poetry and other forms of literary writing, although they can be intentionally obscure, the goal is to be understood. Of course, sometimes the point of a literary piece is to defy meaning so as to evoke the futility of human interactions and understanding. Even so, although vexingly counterintuitive, such literary intention still devotes itself to the mission of clarity with the (obscure) form enacting the theme of imperfect knowability.
In Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub (1704), the narrator, a wit of the then-modern mode, presents a detailed Christian allegory that offers little illumination. He interrupts this tale frequently with lengthy digressions on various ostensibly unrelated topics, the final one being the famous “A Digression Concerning Madness” in which he altogether throws off reason. Then blissfully bereft of logic, he is free to continue his allegorical tale howsoever he pleases without any need to make meaning.
His final paragraph is most telling and worth quoting in full:
In my disposure of employments of the brain, I have thought fit to make invention the master, and to give method and reason the office of its lackeys. The cause of this distribution was from observing it my peculiar case to be often under a temptation of being witty upon occasion where I could be neither wise nor sound, nor anything to the matter in hand. And I am too much a servant of the modern way to neglect any such opportunities, whatever pains or improprieties I may be at to introduce them. For I have observed that from a laborious collection of seven hundred and thirty-eight flowers and shining hints of the best modern authors, digested with great reading into my book of common places, I have not been able after five years to draw, hook, or force into common conversation any more than a dozen. Of which dozen the one moiety failed of success by being dropped among unsuitable company, and the other cost me so many strains, and traps, and ambages to introduce, that I at length resolved to give it over. Now this disappointment (to discover a secret), I must own, gave me the first hint of setting up for an author, and I have since found among some particular friends that it is become a very general complaint, and has produced the same effects upon many others. For I have remarked many a towardly word to be wholly neglected or despised in discourse, which hath passed very smoothly with some consideration and esteem after its preferment and sanction in print. But now, since, by the liberty and encouragement of the press, I am grown absolute master of the occasions and opportunities to expose the talents I have acquired, I already discover that the issues of my observanda begin to grow too large for the receipts. Therefore I shall here pause awhile, till I find, by feeling the world’s pulse and my own, that it will be of absolute necessity for us both to resume my pen.
He follows this paragraph with a curt “Finis.”
Two paragraphs before, he had executed one of my favorite Swiftian metaphors:
I conceive, therefore, as to the business of being profound, that it is with writers as with wells. A person with good eyes can see to the bottom of the deepest, provided any water be there; and that often when there is nothing in the world at the bottom besides dryness and dirt, though it be but a yard and half under ground, it shall pass, however, for wondrous deep, upon no wiser a reason than because it is wondrous dark.
This metaphor brings us closest, perhaps, to the meaning of the Tale: that it is a work that inherently resists meaning.
So, here, we have a great work of literature that eschews clarity to complain about the perceived lack of clarity in fashionable writing and the general futility of trying to communicate with accuracy or clarity. The reader, perhaps convinced by its opacity that there is much profundity in the Tale, falls victim to the allure of the “wondrous dark.” Here obscurity serves clarity, and the reader stumbles.
As is frequent with art, exceptions are the rule, and yet clarity still trumps everything.