Talking tough

Nature often has ways of seeing something evolve in such a way that it takes on characteristics that make it look like something else, even though the two have nothing in common. Think of a butterfly or moth whose wings bear markings that look just like a pair of eyes, an insect that looks just like a stick, or a harmless scarlet kingsnake whose color patterns nearly match those of its venomous cousin, the coral snake.

These evolutionary patterns, whether they have the effect of standing out or blending in, are no surprise -- they're simply the evolutionary result of nature rewarding some adaptations more than others. Mimicry is a powerful force in nature.

As human beings, we're often no different. We may not evolve the way we dress, but people copy the looks of successful people all the time. The General American accent is nearly universal among American television figures, no matter where they grew up, because it "passes" everywhere for a certain image of acceptability (it also happens to be an accent that is native to the southern half of Iowa, plus contiguous portions of Nebraska and Illinois). Children everywhere put on the costumes of their favorite athletes and actors not because they think it will turn them into those figures, but because it makes them feel like they can live in the imaginary world where they have the same powers.

But we ought to be conscious of when this kind of mimicry among humans can be badly misleading.

Great leaders know how and when to be resolute. Think of Winston Churchill's promise that "we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender", or of Ronald Reagan's steely-eyed "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Imagine John Hancock signing his name boldly to the Declaration of Independence, or Margaret Thatcher telling wavering members of her Conservative Party, "You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning."

The resolute leader looks a challenge squarely in the eye, says firmly what will or will not come to pass, and promises to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship" along the way to getting there. Resolution is a promise to sacrifice, to persevere, and to endure pain in pursuit of achieving something great -- even at great cost.

The resolute leader is the real deal. But human social evolution has rewarded a form of mimicry: Looking tough.

People have managed to look tough for tens of thousands of years. Undoubtedly some of our very first politics involved choosing tough-looking leaders for our earliest tribes. In a world mostly made of anarchy, it's probably pretty natural for humans to seek tough-looking leaders.

Yet there's a catch to this. Looking tough, it turns out, isn't particularly hard to fake. Snarl a few times, glower at the camera, shout at an opponent, or break out a weapon for a campaign ad, and you may well be on your way to looking tough in the 21st Century. Plenty of people will look at "tough" and mistake it for seeing "resolute".

But looking "tough" is almost as easy as putting on as a Halloween costume. It doesn't really ask anything of the person putting on the display. Does it take much for a "tough" coach to yell at his football players during practice? Not really. Or for someone holding a gun to bark orders at someone who isn't armed? Not so much. Or for an angry teacher to snap an unruly class? Again, no. Especially when the established orders of society put someone in a natural position of power or authority over others, it rarely asks much of that person to show that they're at least superficially "tough".

What the world needs, though, are leaders who can be resolute. This is a planet of 7.6 billion people, with at least 7.6 billion conflicts among us. We face risks known and unknown, problems natural and man-made, challenges from our own planet and those from afar. Many of them will take a long time to fix, and some will even require generations. And there will be costs to bear: Whether they're risks from cagey diseases like ebola or from planet-killing asteroids we're only learning to see, whether they're the "gray goo" of out-of-control AI or the dangers of a supervolcano, we have problems to address that won't back down just because someone went on television with a scowl and a squint.

This isn't a left-wing problem or a right-wing problem. When Sen. Bernie Sanders shouts about "millionaires and billionaires", he's trying to look tough -- just like former Sheriff David Clarke tried to look tough by enhancing his police uniform with extraneous badges and pins. When former Rep. Beto O'Rourke breaks into colorful language about collecting guns, he's trying to look tough -- just like President Donald Trump tries to look tough when he grabs another world leader by the arm in a handshake battle.

It is so easy to mistake "tough" for resolute -- to think that if only we challenge anger-like symptoms, we'll win. That isn't how the world works, though. Being resolute is harder. It asks more of us. It often even comes camouflaged as plain-vanilla seriousness -- or even a hopelessly boring habit of steadiness. A reservoir of resolution doesn't boil over in froth; it simmers indefinitely. And that makes it hard to find -- and sometimes evasive for the outsider to notice.

And yet we can use all of it that we can find. The resolute are in short supply. And we need them more than ever.

Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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