t’s easy enough to access information from everywhere these days — the office, the waiting room, or lying in bed just after opening your eyes. When I find myself struggling to make sense of the world as reconstructed by that information, struggling to make meaning out of garbled messaging, struggling to process events using my own words, I go back to basics.
One of my “basics” — the dictionary. I return to it for its precision, for its clarity, and for its useful elaborations and examples.
As a consumer of news who values language in all its nuance and ambiguity, I would like to share some definitions I decided to revisit this morning. Interpret them as you will, apply them as you see fit, or share a few terms of your own that would benefit from discussion.
Words to Live By? To Fret Over?
Here is the first word that popped into my mind this morning after catching the news at 5:30 a.m., after several days running of consuming news on the “Russia thing,” and following a series of tweets that sent me running for sugar and Advil before the clock struck eight…
This is a word I learned decades ago, studying history. The word is propaganda, explained by Oxford English Dictionaries as:
Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.
Seems to me I learned that word in conjunction with studying Russian and Soviet history. My, but those were simpler and more innocent days…
Here’s a related term, which I picked up years later as a marketer. Spin. And when I learned to master my own marketing “spin,” I deemed it a benign communication skill, vital to my job performance, yet one to be managed responsibly. I suppose that “responsibly” is in the eye of the beholder.
When it comes to the definition of spin, Wikipedia offers a version that I find relevant.
Spin is a form of propaganda, achieved through providing a biased interpretation of an event or campaigning to persuade public opinion in favor or against some organization or public figure. While traditional public relations and advertising may also rely on altering the presentation of the facts, “spin” often implies the use of disingenuous, deceptive, and highly manipulative tactics. Spin is typically applied to events or situations which are deemed to be unfavourable or potentially harmful to the popularity of a person, brand or product.
As such, a standard tactic used in “spinning” is to reframe, reposition, or otherwise modify the perception of an issue or event, to reduce any negative impact it might have on public opinion.
Right. I’m dizzy from the surfeit of spin… But some things are real. Tangible. Spin won’t cut it.
Media Choices. Facts Over Factoids. Adulthood.
Welcome to our current cacophonous and combative media world, regardless of the sources we rely on. And as media moguls battle for our profitable attention — the sensational stimulates clicks, after all — we must act like responsible adults in our choices and their consequences.
All the more reason to broaden our sources, to include some that are not our usual, to question everything — including our usual.
Dare I make another distinction I obsessed over some years back — facts versus factoids?
Next on my hit parade is integrity, from Merriam-Webster:
firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values : incorruptibility
Yes, a “moral” code. Morality matters, however shape-shifting and relative it may seem, much less potentially outmoded.
Here’s another term for a tricky concept that most of us have used at one time or another — in our personal lives if not our professional ones. Obfuscation. Or, in its verb form, to obfuscate:
to throw into shadow, confuse, obscure; to be evasive, unclear, confusing…
For some, obfuscation is a strategy, and an effective one at that, which can border on gaslighting, itself an insidious form of psychological manipulation. The recipient of the confused and conflicting messaging is left scratching his head, and sometimes wondering if he’s crazy.
Leadership Is More Than Holding Power
My last item is this: leadership. I cannot overemphasize its importance. My own belief is that true leadership is not a matter of a title bestowing power or privilege, but something far rarer. Judgment. The ability to process complexity. The ability to advance a set of objectives in the interest of something larger — preferably of broad benefit.
I thought it appropriate to go to a business dictionary given the background of the individual whose leadership challenges are much in the news, and so I offer you this definition of leadership:
The activity of leading a group of people or an organization or the ability to do this.
Leadership involves: establishing a clear vision; sharing that vision with others so that they will follow willingly; providing the information, knowledge and methods to realize that vision, and coordinating and balancing the conflicting interests of all members and stakeholders.
… A leader steps up in times of crisis, and is able to think and act creatively in difficult situations.
Clarity of vision. Sharing the vision. Stepping up in times of crisis.
One final note. I am, like you, and like millions of people around the world, distressed, disheartened, and disgusted by the violence that occurred over the weekend in London. I am appalled at what attempts to pass for leadership in terms of responses I have seen on Twitter at the highest level. May we all find the strength, compassion, reason and perspective to think before we speak (or tweet), to reject hate and otherizing, and to put our faith in those best able to find solutions to the breadth and complexity of the underlying issues on the world stage.