Yesterday on Writing Boots, I did some negotiating with my friend Lucinda Holdforth’s new book, 21st Century Virtues: How They Are Failing Our Democracy.
Today, Holdforth answers my piece:
Free speech is like a muscle: It sustains its strength and power only if we exercise it on a regular basis. Great to hear your honest thoughts about 21st Century Virtues and thank you for the opportunity to respond in your space.
I wrote this essay because, as a speechwriter, I am alert to words in our culture and what happens to them. Some words, for example, have gone into hibernation: we don’t hear much praise of reliability and constancy anymore, do we?
But there are a bunch of words we hear almost incessantly: Authenticity, Vulnerability, Empathy are three of them. We also hear a lot about Self-Care and “My” Truth. Humility is ubiquitous, in fact it is practically mandatory in public communications.
In the absence of other tempering virtues, collectively these qualities come together as a relentlessly self-centered world view. They are focused on individual uniqueness, personal experiences of reality and the quest for self-acceptance and self-love.
Ultimately, they elevate feelings over facts, and privilege the self before society. This matters because democracy fundamentally depends, as the Nobel Prize winning journalist Maria Ressa reminds us, upon a “shared reality” based on “facts, truth and trust.”
So what’s wrong with an emphasis on “authenticity” in leadership communications, you ask? What’s wrong with a display of vulnerability? Nothing intrinsically wrong, of course. Every rhetorician from Aristotle onwards has emphasised the power of “pathos” to persuade.
But I believe it’s more important for an ethical leader to focus on integrity (an external, verifiable code of behaviour) than authenticity (a commitment to one’s subjective self-judgement, and worryingly akin to that most repellent of concepts, the “personal brand”).
As for vulnerability, well, elevating “vulnerability” from an inevitable human attribute to a leading democratic virtue seems to me a recipe for social decline. It also strikes me as a rather implausible communication strategy for your average millionaire CEO or politician in a world where the division between the super-rich and the rest grows ever wider.
Right now, I look to Ukraine, where a diverse and united people are fighting for sovereignty and survival against a monstrous Russia. I see how powerfully President Zelensky has won global hearts and minds, not by focusing his own or Ukraine’s weaknesses, but on the courage of the Ukrainian people and their cultural and democratic strengths.