In his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933#, Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined in broad terms his vision of how he hoped to govern. During his presidential campaign, Roosevelt had said as little as possible about what he might do, if elected. His campaign speeches favored a buoyant, optimistic tone spiced with humor.
The speech was solemn as warranted by a worrisome context: By 1933 the depression had reached its depth. Addressing the failures of the market and those of unscrupulous profiteers, he said, “when there is no vision the people perish.”
FDR made changes to policy that intended to be practical. The Constitution, a good neighbor policy, many of the reforms he called for and later enacted, were meant to restore balance and a sense of proportion. He called for courage, unity, clear consciousness. He called for everyone to pitch in, without distrust for the future of essential democracy, nor blaming people for failing.
We need to start thinking more seriously about what we say and how we act, especially in public. But we don't seem to be able to do that. Why?
Doing the work
There's no substitute for practice. That means doing the work. My work in the last 12 years has been progressively shifting to the power of culture to energize value, affect positive change and create lasting impact.
It's early days to be reading anything more into the reactions of various national cultures more than fear of uncertainty. Each country is facing a different context. Think for example at national health systems and alternatives as a frame of reference.
To read anything from lagging indicators—the consequences of decisions made in the past—or try to divine predictions from current indicators in an environment that is in constant flux, both require having done the work. Ilaria Capua and Walter Ricciardi are two independent sources of credible information. Truth is an underrated vaccine in times of crisis.
A sure bet is continuing to work on building capacity for dealing with uncertainty and change. In other words, become better at processing signal through noise. This is the most immediate opportunity.
Who can you trust?
The human brain is wired to feel the mere possibility of imagined danger as real and near. It's potentially a life-saving instinct. But it's getting overstimulated through virtual use. Spend enough time online, and you'd think we're on the brink of all kinds of terrible things.
Yet, spend enough time in the real world, and you find that there's much to the “kind” of humankind. Just because something is online, it doesn't make it credible. There's a critical distinction between belief and reality. Uncertainty looks like risk in a complex world.
Fear is not inherently bad, when we approach it in the right measure. Anti-intellectualism and wholesale rejection of science are more harmful. There's no such thing as an issue in abstract, not even security. Everything needs a context to happen and to understand why it did.
Epictetus said something that survived to us through the centuries because it rings true:
“What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.”
A quest for appearances (especially online) has widened the gap between ideal and reality. But you find meaning in depth, it's the desire to be better that drives that search. The antidote to fear is trust. But who can you trust?
There's a simple way to start separating the wheat from the chaff. Ask, “How do you know?” When historian Alessandro Barbero talks about medieval and military history, I pay attention. He's done the work to understand and cross-reference sources. Look for the people closest to the work.
“You need to build trust,” say some “Trust me,” say others, likely invoking their title and position. Never mind the specific context… yet we should mind and take good care that we do. Every time you read and see something, you're writing it into your brain. That's why it's important to think better. So don't just do something, stand there.
Philosopher Onora O'Neill helps deconstruct those statements and flip the question, showing how the three most common ideas about trust are misconceived. Check for competence, honesty, and reliability. “Honesty is a very expensive gift, Don't expect it from cheap people,” says Warren Buffett.
What's hurting us
When FDR was speaking of unity, the nation was facing a crisis that cut deep into people's consciousness and means. Crises force focus. Then they pass, and you forget. In better times there's more room to tell different stories.
Storytelling is the fantastic human quality of compressing information into neat narratives. But fallacy is a possibility in narrative. Stories are not inherently bad, they can teach us something useful.
Pinocchio gets in trouble, horrible things happen, I still remember how I felt. Geppetto's generous spirit comes across throughout. It will melt your heart—a poor man, with not a penny to his name, selling his coat to buy a book for this marvel of a child born from a piece of wood. Good for developing empathy.
It's not the stories that hurt us. They make plausible reasons why we're failing to plan for the future. But we're fast learners and slow remembers. “Fast is discontinuous, slow is continuous,” observes Stewart Brand. That is a problem, because it's embedded in culture.
Forgetting the past excludes us from its lessons. History is more than just facts, its complexity makes it difficult to learn exactly why things happened the way they did. For example, it's useful to know that at some point there were different rules and ideas of what was acceptable. Studying history is important, but so is updating our thinking with new information from reliable and competent sources.
Often precious time and energy are lost focusing more on blame, rather than solutions. In an email to high school Volta students in Milano#, the principal writes, “One of the biggest risks in such events, Manzoni teaches us and perhaps even more Boccaccio, is the poisoning of human relations.”
The future is ours, if only we can manage to overcome our lack of a common story. Unity and community are built on shared values. That's how culture becomes a strength. But how can you do that when everyone seems to look at the same facts and interpret them differently?
See also bars and signal strength.