In his best-selling, 2009 book on leadership, Start with Why, Simon Sinek offered that the best leaders and organizations give their groups clear guidance regarding the importance of an undertaking, starting with the “why” of the action to be endeavored. Sinek likely never imagined a time and environment in national and international discourse when a necessary precursor to the thing itself (Sinek’s “why”) would need articulation. We are in a period where interpersonal conflict and the banality of our political discourse occasions an antecedent. This is the step of asking how groups embody different life experiences and styles when taking on an endeavor.
What does a professor of classics have to offer a conversation regarding the tone of our public discourse? For some time now, I have been writing about how underrepresented groups — women, Latinx, and Blacks across the globe — engage with classical texts. For example, the Lysistrata Project appropriated for contemporary contexts the premise of Aristophanes’ 411 BCE play, where women seize political power for the purpose of peace, as a starting point for public engagement after 9/11. Nationally acclaimed Chicano performance artist Luis Alfaro enacts Oedipus through the immigrant body, not only Latinx but also incarcerated, in his Oedipus el Rey. And for an example more nationally celebrated and extending beyond the Greco-Roman classics, Martin Luther King, Jr. emphasized the importance of imposing his Black body upon the text of unjust laws, ending the script of segregation.
Reflection on these examples of how bodies interact with scripts, whether classical plays or modern laws, I find the differences between how American presidents inhabit their roles noteworthy. President Barack Obama’s compassionate comment upon the murder of a young Black man (“If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon”) is so distant from our current discourse, where President Trump recently called out someone at his rally for being “seriously overweight.” Let me be clear: I am not talking about political parties or particular policies. Rather, I am offering that how one inhabits scripts (be they texts or roles) matters.
In my own leadership, I do not always get the how right. As President Theodore Roosevelt learned when he spoke openly against a lynching, the public is sometimes not ready for who you are, what you have to say, or how you say it, e.g., unusual, unscripted enactments such being Black father and president. However, inhabiting our scripts with authenticity, integrity, and dignity should preface the why.
After How, then Why?
The hostility was palpable, from the very first day. In my case, a member of my own cabinet joked of someday being the “last man standing.” While such a quip, to an incoming leader, could certainly not be called innocent, the depth of its noxiousness might be easily missed. People who have only lived in polluted cities aren’t necessarily aware of the heightened preciseness of each breath. To the newly arrived, however, the gasps and desperate drawing for air must definitely appear odd, suspicious, or even aggressive. Do you not like where we live? Are you making fun of us? In such an environment, the natural tendency is to be on guard, quip back, or even go on the offensive.
Scripts and Mimetic Desire
Hostility can breed hostility. The imitation of the other that matches punch for punch is rooted in what René Girard called mimetic desire. I do what you do because I seem to need this for my survival. Even in positive terms, your green lawn makes my yellow one conspicuous. When the mimetic desire is about hostility, it can lead to what Girard called the battle to the end, an outcome of winners and losers. World wars and arms races fall in this category. Obliterate or be obliterated.
In such an environment, it takes heightened self-awareness to exit negative mimetic desire (the battle to the end), even for the most well-intentioned. Starting with the “how” of engagement means asking questions regarding the ways that one can best engage, which script one chooses to follow.
Enacting a script necessitates embodiment. There is now a good deal of evidence that social media and other at-distance engagement are life-sources for negative, mimetic desire. Posts, “likes,” and Tweets feed dopamine (the pleasure principle). Up-close, in-person exchanges, while they can be difficult, force human connection, filial bonds, and can encourage collaborative steps.
Thoughtful approaches to others involve stepping out of everyday scripts to choose new ones. This requires a knowledge (of a variety scripts, or other possibilities) and deep reflection.
Then comes the “why.” Enacting scripts forces us to think more deeply about what we value and what our terms of engagement should be. For example, some of the scripts I value are those of the Athenian statesman Pericles, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Hannah Arendt. This means I value democratic exchange and purposeful leadership, non-violence and diplomacy, and the power of classical rhetoric in symbolic leadership. These are the values and desires I want to imitate. And they only scratch the surface of countless scripts and values across time, which extend forward to folks I’ve not even read or encountered yet.
Dr. Patrice Rankine is Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences and Professor of Classics at the University of Richmond.