It’s hard to tell the truth. When we try, we get trapped by the lies we’ve been taught to tell and the politics we hide behind tell because it seems easier. Leaders have to stand in the center of our souls, tell the truth, and stop hiding behind euphemisms (words that make ugly things pretty) and cultural assumptions about what’s right and wrong that make meaningful change harder. Whatever their politics, people who want to lead authentically must transform language into action, starting with the words they choose. Let’s stop spinning and start speaking!
Here’s a good example of a hard truth well spoken. In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik responds to “the video of Richard Martinez, whose twenty-year-old son, Christopher, a college student at the University of California Santa Barbara, was murdered by a man [using a semi-automatic weapon to kill as many blond women as he could on May 23]. Christopher and six others were killed in a mass shooting near campus…. Richard Martinez, in the height of his grief, somehow did the hardest thing there is, and that is to find the courage to speak a painful truth: “Why did Chris die? Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the N.R.A.,” he said. “They talk about gun rights. What about Chris’s right to live? When will this insanity stop? When will enough people say, ‘Stop this madness; we don’t have to live like this?’ Too many have died. We should say to ourselves: not one more.”
Gopnik puts the story in context: the killer, Elliot Rodger, had three semi-automatic handguns that, according to the Los Angeles Times, he’d purchased legally. If he didn’t have those legal handguns, he might have killed, but it would have been harder to do it in a mass shooting. Gopnik writes: “the N.R.A. and the politicians they intimidate enable people to get their hands on weapons and ammunition whose only purpose is to kill other people as quickly and as lethally as possible. How do we know that they are the ‘because’ in this? Because every other modern country has suffered from the same kinds of killings, from the same kinds of sick kids, and every other country has changed its laws to stop them from happening again, and in every other country it hasn’t happened again. (Australia is the clearest case—a horrific gun massacre, new laws, no more gun massacres—but the same is true of Canada, Great Britain, you name it.)”
Not that this isn’t political — it is. Not that we don’t have to fact check to make sure the truth he’s telling is backed up — we do. Gopnik is talking about the kind of leadership that goes the the cultural source of a crisis, rather than letting a crisis hide behind individual actions.
He says, “The war against euphemism and cliché matters not because we can guarantee that eliminating them will help us speak nothing but the truth but, rather, because eliminating them from our language is an act of courage that helps us get just a little closer to the truth. Clear speech takes courage. Every time we tell the truth about a subject that attracts a lot of lies, we advance the sanity of the nation…. Avoiding euphemism takes courage because it almost always points plainly to responsibility.”
Then he unpacks the euphemisms around the “right to bear semi-automatic weapons” debate: “Speaking clearly also lets us examine the elements of a proposition plainly. We know that slogans masquerading as plain speech are mere rhetoric because, on a moment’s inspection, they reveal themselves to be absurd. “The best answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” reveals itself to be a lie on a single inspection: the best answer is to not let the bad guy have a gun. “Guns don’t kill people, people do.” No: obviously, people with guns kill more people than people without them. Why not ban knives or cars, which can be instruments of death, too? Because these things were designed to help people do things other than kill people. “Gun control” means controlling those things whose first purpose is to help people kill other people.”
Now, I believe in gun control, so it’s easier for me to say Gopnik’s unpacking gets closer to truth, and the euphemisms he unpacks are smokescreens. But even if you disagree, it’s still a mandate for honesty grounded in research, the sacredness of human life, valuing real relationships over political spin. Of course, that means unpacking the euphemisms of the “opposition,” but it mainly means unpacking our own euphemisms, our own habitual spin!
For example, Gopnik doesn’t mention hunting. Certainly hunters want to kill (and hopefully eat) game, not kill people. It’s clear he’s talking about a specific argument, a specific place where euphemisms hide the man-eat-man nature of our rageful, fearful society. That needs to be unpacked, too. And here’s the win-win of paying attention to the language of leadership — when we speak as close to truth as we can get, we connect better. We argue/discuss/challenge each other by connection, not by oppositional positions. We talk about what we want, what we really believe is happening, what we hope for. We get to a collective place where our righteous indignation recedes, and we can listen, learn and plan.
No one thinks mass shootings by unbalanced people are a good thing! Pro-lifers don’t think mothers should die in childbirth or believe child abuse and poverty as good parenting models; pro-choicers don’t mindlessly celebrate abortion over healthy childbirth and loving families. Republicans don’t sit in their castles counting hundred dollar bills and scheming how to take medical care from sick children; Democrats don’t gleefully hatch social service programs because they hate capitalism, capitalists or free enterprise. The world is more complicated than this, in every way — it’s time to get to the human equation, then make political solutions.
It’s time for all of us to take leadership roles with the language we use, claiming the courage to really talk with each other about what’s happening in the world, what we really want to protect, and how we can work together to truly protect it. That’s a leadership conversation — a hard one and a good one.