Lest We All Die

Like most of us, I suppose, I have a set of values and principles to which I try to adhere.  Perhaps the most important of these is the belief that we should all treat each other with the same respect and dignity with which we hope to be treated.

But there are others I profess, too; among them—

  • love is better than hate;
  • honesty is better than mendacity;
  • tolerance is better than small-mindedness;
  • civility is better than rudeness;
  • rational thought is better than baseless opinion;
  • equity in race, gender, and economic security is better than inequity;
  • freedom is better than enslavement;
  • peaceful coexistence is better than open warfare;
  • rule of law in our collective society is better than anarchy; and
  • majority rule in our collective society, however flawed, is better than the tyranny of a minority.

Like many of us, I imagine, I try to inject the values I espouse into my daily doings.  At my age, alas, the range of those doings is growing increasingly smaller, my influence is shrinking among my social circle, and the spectre of irrelevance is looming ever larger.  Where once my thinking was valued and reflected upon by those around me, it is less entreated as the years slide by.

My greatest impact is felt now through the writing I do—or so I choose to convince myself.  In the almost three-hundred essays I have posted to this blog since its inception in January 2016, I have touched on a multitude of subjects influenced by my value-set, some of them repeatedly.  A partial list includes—

  • parenthood; children and grandchildren; family and friends; education of the young;
  • racial and gender inequality; socio-economic issues and child poverty; wealth inequity; discrimination and prejudice; women’s reproductive rights; aging; civility and respect; pandemic unpreparedness; the future of work; artificial intelligence; right-wing Christian nationalism; peaceful coexistence;
  • famine and food scarcity; freshwater scarcity; forced migration; climate change; biodiversity loss; water and air pollution; global warming; ecological collapse; overpopulation; species extinction;
  • government overreach; politics and authoritarianism; corruption; warfare and nuclear threats;
  • freedom of speech; media and a free press; big tech; alternative facts and disinformation; and  
  • humour and whimsy; reminiscences; childhood; life eternal.

I also believe that certainty is the enemy of an open mind, and that we should not believe everything we think.  Therefore, I remain quite prepared to hear about and learn from contrary viewpoints.

Unlike a few people who persist in doing so, I have never tried to impose my values on anyone through my writing.  I believe in persuasion, not mandate or fiat.  Everyone is free to read my blog-posts if they so choose; they are also, and importantly, free to agree or disagree with what I’ve written; and they are free to offer comment.  There is no pressure on anyone, explicit or implied, to come over to my way of thinking.

I accept other people’s right to believe as they do, to say what they wish, and to act as they will, but with one critical proviso—they are not free to harm anyone else in so doing, or to foist their beliefs on unwilling others.  

I know this view is not popular with the social, political, and religious zealots, partisans, and proselytizers who brook no dissent.  Nevertheless, I believe it is in keeping with my aforementioned values and principles, and I continue to espouse them.

To ensure our continued coexistence, my only plea is that we live and let live.

Lest we all die.

The Smartest Guy

During my working career, sometimes I was the smartest guy in the room.  But only sometimes.  Fortunately for me, in many of the situations where I wasn’t, I was the highest-ranking guy in the room, so the smartest folks, if they wanted corporate decisions and actions to go their way, had to convince me of the merits of their positions.

On occasion, that was relatively easy for them, because the evidence in favour of their arguments was plentiful and conclusive, and I’d have had to be the dumbest guy in the room not to understand that.  But I was never the dumbest guy, so in matters where there seemed only one reasonable course of action, not much convincing was needed. 

Other times, though, those smarter folks in the room would present conflicting data to me, sufficient to rule out an obvious choice, and that’s where the need to be convincing became paramount.  Whenever I was presented with two or more sets of factual data, each suggesting plausible courses of action, the art of persuasion became more significant.  And in such cases, I could always be persuaded by logic and passion.

Early on in my career, before I‘d reached the point where I was the arbiter in such scenarios, I watched as other smart folks made their pitches—sometimes in concert with me, sometimes in opposition—to those who would ultimately decide the matters in question.  And I learned that, absent overwhelming evidence in favour of one option or another, the most effective presentation of the differing bodies of evidence usually won the day.

Most of the folks to whom I reported along the way—men and women both—considered themselves the smartest guys in the room.  But just in case they might be wrong, all of them surrounded themselves with subordinates who might be—and who often were, in fact.  More importantly, the most effective of my bosses listened closely to their people, allowing themselves to be swayed by facts, logic, and passion—usually in that order.

I soon learned that passion alone would rarely, if ever, win the day with the smartest guys in the room.  For them, facts and logic were essential; they were, after all, rational beings.  But whenever reams of facts and heaps of logic offered divergent paths that might plausibly be followed, emotion entered the arena—enthusiasm, zeal, fervour, each of which is an essential part of the art of persuasion. 

Over time, I noticed the people who had the most success at winning over the decision-makers embodied similar characteristics, employed similar methods.  They were open and transparent about themselves, for example, and allowed others a chance to know them on a personal level, to learn what they stood for, what they valued.  When talking with someone, they focused exclusively on that person in the moment—leaning in, making eye contact, smiling and nodding when appropriate—all of which had the effect of making the person feel singularly important—even the boss.

The effective influencers were highly-visible in the workplace, too, and always asked pertinent questions of others in conversations and meetings to solicit their viewpoints.  They listened actively to the responses they received, sometimes saying them back, perhaps in their own words—not just to indicate understanding, but often to reframe the discussion in their direction.  They tried to establish links between colleagues’ ideas and their own, seeking to achieve synthesis—and eventually, consensus.

All of them were consensus-builders, but the consensus they strove for invariably skewed toward their own desired outcomes.  They would acknowledge and commend the results suggested by others’ proposals, then meld them with their own to offer higher-order outcomes, often coupled with a variety of strategies and tactics to achieve them.

One of the most effective of these tactics was their engaging habit of beginning their responses to others’ ideas with a phrase like, “Yeah, I agree…” or, “Yeah, I like that…”.  And then they’d segue to their own proposal by adding something like, “And if we were to combine that concept with this one…”, the point of which was to move the needle on the consensus-meter in their direction.

Without exception, all these folks who were successful at winning others over had a keen sense of anticipation, a nose to the wind for what might be coming, perhaps unexpectedly, and they made sure they were prepared with contingency plans.  I took notice of how they always had responses at the ready for questions that might never get asked, for objections that may never be raised.  They radiated readiness and competence, and as a result encouraged confidence in their abilities on the part of those around them.

With few exceptions, these smart folks with whom I worked were well-intentioned, not self-serving or conniving.  Almost all of us had the best interests of the organization at heart, and each of us believed the option we were advancing in a particular circumstance, even where it differed from colleagues’ proposals, was the best alternative for the organization.  We competed, yes, but for the overall good.

After I eventually ascended to the arbiter’s chair, the critical factor for me in favouring one proposed course of action over another was integrity—each person’s integrity, definitely, but also the underlying validity and foundation of her or his proposal.  The credibility of both the person and the proposal were paramount.  When those were in place, when the data and logic were clear, I was ready to be convinced, to be persuaded.

Even today, long-since retired, I consider the importance of having to be the smartest guy in the room over-rated.  One could be merely a shade above average in a roomful of average—hence, the smartest in the room—yet not particularly well-equipped to make critical decisions.

Far more important for decision-makers, I have always thought, is to encircle themselves with folks with the potential to be the smartest guy, and then encourage them, listen to them, take direction from them, and earn their commitment to a final consensus—a consensus that may ultimately combine elements of several proposals.

Now, if you’ve read this far, it’s possible that you disagree with me about some or all of my thinking, so feel free to persuade me otherwise.

I can be reached.

Uneasy Lies the Head…

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.  So mused Henry IV in William Shakespeare’s eponymous play, after he had seized the throne from Richard II.  Being ruler of an Empire had proven more wearisome than he had reckoned.

I thought of his quandary upon hearing the news that Prince Charles has succeeded his deceased mother, Queen Elizabeth II, to the British throne, and will henceforth be known as His Majesty Charles the Third, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of His other Realms and Territories King, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.

That is a mouthful, and may prove to be more than he can chew.

For the first nine years of my life, I pledged allegiance to a King every morning in school—and to the flag, the Empire, and my country—but I had scant appreciation of what those actually were.  To me, the King was a framed portrait of a uniformed man hanging on the wall of my classroom; the flag was an attractive array of red, white, and blue crosses, draped below the portrait; the Empire was made up of the pink areas on a Mercator projection wall-map prominently displayed nearby; and my country, Canada, was for a long time defined by the few square city-blocks I could traverse on my tricycle before being corralled by a frantic mother.  But it was pink!

Indeed, as we were taught, the sun never set on the British Empire.  We sang the national anthem every day with great gusto: God save our gracious King, Long live our noble King, God save the King… 

It took a while for us to master the switch to God save our gracious Queen… upon the death of George VI in 1952 And eventually, we stopped singing the song at all, in favour of our own national anthem, O Canada, officially adopted in 1980—long after I had left my schoolboy days behind.

It never occurred to me back then that those glorious pink areas on the map were the result of rampant, colonial conquest of the original inhabitants of those lands.  And in fairness, how could I have known?  I was raised to believe in right vs. wrong, truth vs. falsity, morality vs. depravity, religiosity vs. atheism, generosity vs. selfishness, civility vs. rudeness, the rule of law applied to all equally vs. anarchy—all admirable virtues in and of themselves, but all defined, of course, by the privileged White authority represented by the Crown.  The triumphant.

…Send him victorious, Happy and glorious…

I was brought up in the bosom of the Anglican Church, a colonial version of the Church of England, and taught to believe that sin was inevitable, repentance essential, and forgiveness attainable.  And those, too, I came to understand, were defined from on high.  Sin was anything the clergy might from time to time, in their great, Christian wisdom, determine it to be; repentance was adjudged sincere or not by their strict standards; and forgiveness was beneficently granted by the Lord through them—or not, as they deemed appropriate—often requiring mandatory acts of atonement.

To be sure, I enjoyed a privileged childhood, for which I am grateful.  But my upbringing rendered me an absolutist well into my adult years, fully invested in the values and tenets I had been taught.  That I am today something of a relativist may, I suppose, be attributed to my advancing years and a questing mind, more than to any great, moral awakening.

It seems to me now that, although might should never make right, the definition of right vs. wrong is still determined by those who can enforce their interpretation.  Truth vs. falsity is defined and re-defined by those who are winning the culture-wars at any particular moment.  Ernest Hemingway wrote a memoir, published posthumously, the title of which—A Moveable Feast—describes perfectly the relativism of the definitions of virtues we still profess to believe.

What constitutes selfishness today, as opposed to self-interest?  And who gets to decide?  What is regarded as moral vs. depraved behaviour?  And by whom?  Where is the boundary between civility toward one another vs. rudeness and hate?  And who sets that boundary?

Is adherence to a set of liturgy-bound, religious beliefs more legitimate than a self-imposed regimen of acceptable, generous-of-spirit behaviour?  And who is to decide if the adherents of either viewpoint are upholding and demonstrating their professed beliefs, as opposed to merely paying lip-service.  Hypocrisy is never pretty.  

In the diverse, multicultural world in which we live, there are many who would answer those questions. And there are many more, alas, who will not listen to any but their own.

A major advantage of being an absolutist is that one need never question one’s own motives or actions.  For the acquiescent, it is enough to act within the boundaries of the commonly-accepted virtues proscribed from on high, or profess to be doing so.  For the scofflaws, it suffices to act in opposition to that, based upon their own set of contradictory values.  Each side sees itself as right, the other wrong.  And they are absolutely certain of their positions.

Relativists, on the other hand, are forever doomed to uncertainty, questioning the validity, the relevance, the wisdom of their beliefs and actions, no matter what they do.  Theirs is the age-old question—why?

King Charles III strikes me from afar as one who, though bound by centuries of absolutist tradition and ritual, will prove to be something of a relativist, a King who will question many of those very institutions and sacraments surrounding him, with a view to modifying them.  I want to believe he realizes that, even as the monarchy is steeped in pomp and circumstance, it cannot stand still.  There is no such thing as stasis.  Just as our world is ever evolving, so, too, must its institutions.

Charles now wears the crown I pledged allegiance to on the head of his grandfather during my long-ago school-days, and I pray it will not lie uneasy upon him.  I hope it will inspire him to critically examine his reign relative to the world around him, to lead his monarchy to a strengthening of ties with his subjects, and toward reconciliation with those whom the Empire has harmed.

…Long to reign over us, God save the King.