Nearly twenty years ago, I first read the Qualifications of a Naval Officer, which was (at the time, apparently with a bit of inaccuracy) attributed to John Paul Jones.* As an 18-year-old, I found it interesting, cumbersome, romantic, and very hard to say quickly while “peas and carrots” was being shouted in my ear.
“It is by no means enough that an officer of the navy should be a capable mariner. He must be that, of course, but also a great deal more. He should be as well a gentleman of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor. He should be the soul of tact, patience, justice, firmness, and charity. No meritorious act of a subordinate should escape his attention or be left to pass without its reward, even if the reward is only a word of approval. Conversely, he should not be blind to a single fault in any subordinate, though, at the same time, he should be quick and unfailing to distinguish error from malice, thoughtlessness from incompetency, and well-meant shortcoming from heedless or stupid blunder. In one word, every commander should keep constantly before him the great truth, that to be well obeyed, he must be perfectly esteemed.”
(from USNA’s Reef Points)
Recently I find myself thinking about it again…specifically, the middle of that third sentence, the part about refined manners and punctilious courtesy.
Election season grinds away, and dialogue in the media—especially on political matters—has (as usual) taken on ever-increasingly sharp and divisive tones. Print and online debate on many topics has begun to echo that trend. The internet, with comment forums and chat rooms that feature the safety of anonymity and the allure of a virtual open mike, feeds the beast. The most polite, civil article can attract an array of mean-spirited comments, with personal attacks leading the charge regardless of topic. And anyone who has taken a glance at the comments following news articles can attest to how rampant this form of “discussion” has become, where personal attacks and scornful dismissals stand in for real arguments and are considered actual debate. An entire area of research on the internet and so-called internet “trolls” studies why people act and speak to others this way and what it all means.
So what does this have to do with the naval services and the qualifications of a Naval Officer? The dismissive, disrespectful tone has bled over into apolitical professional discussions within the military, and has become a largely acceptable way to argue a point on military topics both in internet forums and journal commentary.
Way back in July, the Washington Post published an opinion piece by Robert J. Samuelson titled “Is the U.S. a land of liberty or equality?” tackling polarized discourse. While his writing largely addressed politics, his thoughts transfer well to professional and personal communication in general. One quote in particular stood out (I tried to take the liberal vs. conservative slant out to focus primarily on more general discourse):
“ Our national debates now transcend disputes over this or that spending program or tax and have become—in the minds of the combatants—a climactic struggle for the nature and soul of America…But in today’s politically poisoned climate, righteousness is at a premium and historical reality at a discount. Each side…behaves as if it has a monopoly on historical truth. The fear that the existence of their version of America is threatened sows discord and explains why love of country has become a double-edged sword, dividing us when it might unite.”
He’s got a good point. It’s easy to “win” an argument by painting others in broad, dismissive, and scornful strokes, and it’s more and more acceptable to try to do so in everyday discourse. But calling someone moronic, ignorant, or dangerous does not make them moronic, ignorant, or dangerous…and it has an alienating and cooling effect on true, meaningful debate. It has the added danger of the boy crying “wolf”: comparing someone to Hitler or using dramatic language reduces the power of those very words. And maybe one day we’ll need them.
It also does not make America—or the Navy and Marine Corps—better. People stop listening when they hear such a tone, so we win over no one and create echo chambers populated by those who think exactly like us. Instead of actually confronting problems and creating solutions, this further reinforces existing problems.
Nowhere is this truer than in the services, where we all start from a similar vantage point: many of us signed up because we feel a duty or calling to serve, we think it’s important, and we believe in this country with its faults and failures. Mutual respect, professional dialogue, and openness to true debate only strengthen the discussion. Not a single soul alive has a monopoly on intelligence and truth, so it’s a good thing that we all have different opinions and experiences, because the problems that we face as a nation and as a military will take all kinds of minds to confront and overcome.
It’s important to encourage debate and to discuss topics that cause concern, especially in today’s complex climate. But if the process of doing just that alienates everyone else, we’re defeated before we begin.
Back to John Paul Jones/Augustus C. Buell: he mentioned manners and courtesy right up there with honor. The services should not become as divided and polarized as the nation is, and given the tasks ahead of us for the foreseeable future, we cannot afford to be. We need voices out there…but we need them to be smart, honest, and respectful or they will get lost in the noise.
* The quotation actually comes from Augustus C. Buell (1900), who believed that this quote reflected was what John Paul Jones would have said, as later copies of Reef Points corrected.