Avoiding “intemperate” language: Leadership for wimps 101

07 Dec

I was reading an article today in the Raleigh News and Observer. A local mayor had been criticized for not being more forceful or even more candid in his comments about events in his city. His nickname, according to the columnist is “Still Bill” because of his laconic responses to crises. The mayor’s defense to this criticism is that he was not sure what was going on and did not want to be guilty of making an “intemperate” remark.

I was immediately struck by how this country has become divided into two kinds of leadership. Those who do not mind, indeed revel in, making intemperate remarks and those who are so careful not to offend anyone that they become pseudo people. Unfortunately, for those of us who lean left the former group seems to be almost entirely populated by those on the right, sometimes the far right. Besides James Carville and a few others I cannot even think of a leftie who shoots off his or her mouth regularly, actually saying what they think, damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead!

Perhaps that is the attraction of some of the folks like Sarah Palin. Even if she says something asinine she is not afraid to say what she thinks. In America today we have become so worried about saying the wrong thing that we generally end up saying nothing. I could probably quote most of the speeches I have heard from politicians and other so-called leaders verbatim before they are made. Something about wanting the best for everyone, for being proud of what we have done, but acknowledging we still have work to do and exhorting everyone to have faith in their leadership to save/improve/fix/enhance/repair/remove/ the problem referenced. Blah, blah, blah.

Those of  you who know me well know that I believe saying what you actually think is the only way to be a genuine person. Does that mean being bullying or hurtful or inconsiderate? Absolutely not. The old axiom if you cannot say something nice do not say anything at all still has great use. If, however, you are speaking your mind on a topic, not a person, a topic, and if you are able to back up your opinion with facts and logic then the fact that that opinion might not be a popular one or one people want to hear should not be the determinant of whether or not it is said.

There are a lot of things in this world that need changing. And nobody ever changed anything without upsetting someone. Leaders, true leaders, have to be able to stand being unpopular at times. That is why we do not have any true leaders in politics. If you are unpopular even temporarily you face not being elected in the first place or re-elected in the second. So, due to societal mores we have made politicians impotent. They are able to be purchased by people who can help them pay for handlers and speech writers to make them palatable to the general public. The fact that this makes them beholden to the people who bought them seems to be either ignored or generally accepted by the American people.

Who do you think paid to get the Republican majority elected in congress? People who wanted the tax breaks for the rich discontinued? Did any of the GOP candidates run on the ” Let’s keep the fat cats fat” platform? Nope they talked about limited government and balancing the budget. I am no economist, but I am pretty sure continuing to collect fewer tax dollars is not good for the bottom line. But, of course, I am not a politician and I can say ” intemperate” things like that.

I lived in my home town or close by until I was 55. People knew me and they knew that I could be counted upon to say what I thought and generally to have some pretty good data to back it up. When I moved several states away, amongst new people I was fascinated that they found me, depending on how much they agreed with me, “brave” or “courageous” or “irrepressible” or “outspoken” or in at least one case “intimidating.” I have no idea where that last one came from, I have no power on campus so how one who cannot fire or hire can intimidate is a mystery to me.

I have a sign above my desk that says it all as far as I am concerned. “What is popular is not always right, what is right is not always popular.” Leaders are supposed to lead.That means doing their homework and making recommendations based on what they found out. It means informing others and making suggestions for action. It does not mean avoiding “intemperate” comments. One woman’s intemperate comment is another woman’s truth. Gandhi, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, MLK, JFK, Audre Lorde, John Brown, all made remarks that could have been considered intemperate in their time for some people. Americans are good at that too, once the leader has been vindicated because his or her cause has become the norm, like striking down Jim Crow or letting women vote, or ending slavery, we deify the ones who said it and put their words in stone!

My favorite quote is by Horace Mann, the first president of Antioch College, where I used to teach. “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for mankind.” You do not win victories by watching what you say. You win victories by holding society’s feet to the fire until they listen to what you are saying!

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Posted by on December 7, 2010 in Social Justice


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