Saturday, May 2, 2015

Consistency, Justification, and the Always-On Public Persona

One of my most-loathed quotes of all time is Ralph Waldo Emerson's suggestion that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Certainly, it's useful and sometimes even necessary to reinvent oneself, but without the day-to-day consistency of how we address the public and treat our friends, we would feel it was OK to betray associates at a moment's notice, or to add and drop lovers like pieces of aluminum foil.

Similarly, whether we are famous or not, whether we are in positions of power or not, we should assume as social beings that we need to justify our actions to others, constantly and with as much consistency one can muster. The other day, a non-profit director took an arbitrary action against a partner, then said "I have no need to explain my actions to anyone." That point of view is as absurd as the CEO or public administrator who believes they can fire an employee and call it a "personnel matter," or the government of China jailing five feminists and calling it an "internal affair." In the 24/7 Internet era of the 21st century, there are no internal affairs. There are no private personnel matters. Everything, everywhere, is open for public debate, and you damned well better be able to rationalize the actions you take. Insisting that, because you are in a position of authority, you can take arbitrary actions without justifying them, is a certain path for eventually being removed from power.

When Aaron Burr challenged Alexander Hamilton to a duel, one of the underlying reasons stemmed from Hamilton's insistence that, as a member of the aristocracy, he could say things among a dozen friends that directly contradicted what he said in a public forum. Burr, as one of the first "modern" politicians, realized that a public figure has no private space. What is done or said in front of one person is done or said in front of 7 billion. And as such, it must be justified. If you take arbitrary actions and do not justify your reasons, you've publicly identified yourself as a shitty person.

I've said before that rash and blurty acts are dangerous in their own right. Any word that escapes your mouth, any act that escapes your body, should be run through your cortex for 30 seconds first. Sometimes you plan acts that seem to others to be unfair, but you had better be able to make your public case. As my friend Ricky said, "If I were to do a crappy thing to someone it would be planned. When finished with that crappy thing I would be prepared to explain the ins and outs of the crap. To justify my actions. A percentage of people would agree but on the other end a percentage of people would disagree. Never in silence of actions taken." CEOs, executive directors, leaders of nations, you have no private space. Justify everything you do. The alternative is to end up like Alexander Hamilton.