Saturday, April 10, 2010

Our need for thinking national leaders with the gift of language

How important are knowledge, experience, and wisdom to individuals aspiring for national leadership? How important is the breadth and depth of someone’s vocabulary—whether English or some other language—when that someone aspires to be the country’s president or vice president?

In 2003, at the start of the national election campaign period in the Philippines, I took the position that all of these measures of fitness for public office were absolute musts. Writing in my column in The Manila Times in December 8 of that year, I argued that that the higher one’s responsibility, the wider and deeper the vocabulary needed to be effective on the job. However, I lamented the fact that our country’s electorate then no longer seemed to think so. “Like chronic sleepwalkers,” I wrote, “we have been substituting media-induced perception for reality, glitz and noise for intellect and moral rectitude, and the phantom figures of pollsters-for-hire and audience-ratings meters for the true worth of individuals.”

Once again, in the current national election campaign, the same forces are relentlessly at work to convince the electorate that simple positioning or posturing of a candidate as defender of good-versus-evil is a fair trade-off for ineptitude, inexperience, or recidivism. I tremble at the thought that we are being asked to choose our national leaders largely on this basis. This is why I am constrained to post in the Forum that essay I wrote way back in 2003, “At a loss for words.” I am hoping that in some way, it will serve as a countervailing force against the relentless efforts of the propaganda machines of all the political camps to dumb down our electoral decision-making this coming May. (April 10, 2010)

At a loss for words

A great disappointment in our country’s politics is that it no longer requires knowledge, experience, and wisdom from those considered worthy of election to public office. For so many years now, we have chosen to lead us not a few men and women whose only claim to ascendancy over us is popularity not from achievement but from media exposure, and whose strongest virtue is distracting us from the harsh realities of life, making us laugh, or simply being electronically seen or heard from day to day reading the news, spouting some half-baked opinion, or hawking consumer items for precious extra media mileage.

Like chronic sleepwalkers, we have been substituting media-induced perception for reality, glitz and noise for intellect and moral rectitude, and the phantom figures of pollsters-for-hire and audience-ratings meters for the true worth of individuals.

The point has been reached, in fact, where we no longer demand that those aspiring for high public office at least define themselves, tell us their political ideal, mission, or vision, or assure us that they have a clear idea of what they are doing in the first place. Gone indeed are the days when people who sought elective office could at least talk to us convincingly straight from their own minds and hearts, without the benefit of script or idiot board. The electorate has become so painfully blasé and inept that those touted by self-serving statistics as surefire bets could forever be at a loss for words, yet still get themselves elected handily.

The tragedy of it all is that this is happening at this very time that we need mature, intelligent, and enlightened leadership to turn the nation around. More than ever before, we need men and women not only of action but of words—words to tell us in the most precise terms why this country is not moving forward at all, words to spell out concretely the crucial things to be done or undone to get us out of the hole we are in, and words to inspire us to close ranks and propel this archipelago to the greatness that has eluded it for more than half a millennium now. We need thinking leaders with the priceless gift of language, not necessarily stentorian, but who can define, articulate, and pursue the national agenda intelligently and purposively, with words that ring true whether spoken off the cuff or clothed with the rhetoric that important state occasions demand.

For these big tasks, our country can ill afford any more individuals with very scant vocabulary—whether in Filipino, English, or any other language—and much less those with no experience whatsoever in governance and public affairs. To do so would be like appointing someone who cannot even compute and had not even run a sarisari store to run a huge manufacturing firm like San Miguel Corporation, or allowing a tricycle driver without flight training and only a smattering of English to pilot a Boeing 747 over the Pacific from Manila to Los Angeles.

How perilous it is that for the sake of political expediency, this country’s electorate is again being prodded to gloss over the importance of intelligence and good grasp of language in the art of leadership! All the more disturbing that our supposedly more intelligent political leaders and opinion-makers could tell us without mincing words that popularity and perceived honesty is a fair trade-off for ineptitude. When are we going to learn that the most powerful determinant of intellect is the breadth and depth of one’s vocabulary, and that the higher one’s responsibility, the wider and deeper the vocabulary needed to be effective on the job? One could not even name things in context—much less frame a decent sentence or meaningfully analyze or conclude about anything—if one didn’t have at least a decent grasp and understanding of the totally new activity or enterprise one ventures into.

In his 1993 collection of essays, The Wisdom of Henry Hazlitt, the well-regarded American economist and writer clearly captured the importance of vocabulary in good thinking in these words:

A vocabulary increases and sharpens our observation, as sharp observation in turn leads us to increase our vocabulary. The student of nature who is learning to recognize bushes and trees finds his observation increasingly sharpened as he is told how to identify respectively an oak, maple, elm, beech, pine, spruce, or hemlock. The name both fastens down the results of observation and tells him what distinguishing traits to look for. As a result of his knowledge, a countryman very seldom calls a specific tree simply a tree. The professional forester or nurseryman habitually makes even finer distinctions, such as that between red oaks, black oaks, and white oaks, or between Norway maples, Schwedler maples, and sugar maples.

Perhaps we can avoid the costly political mistakes of our recent past if only our countrymen and our presumptive leaders became more keenly aware of this.


From Give Your English the Winning Edge by Jose A. Carillo © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved. This essay originally appeared in the author’s column, “English Plain and Simple,” in the December 8, 2003 issue of The Manila Times.

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  1. Weeks ago, Mercado gave a speech on the UNimportance of the English language in his rampage of a campaign. It was annoying, also because I couldn't focus on my writing and I had to meet a three-day deadline then. I find politicians who make up excuses -- especially those that aim to scathe the English language -- weak and unfit to be running for ANY position.

  2. Who is this Mercado that you are referring to, Kuyerjudd? If you can more categorically identify who he is, perhaps I can put in my two cents' worth about what he's doing in the campaign. Cheers!