Free Speech, Power and Leadership

Boy, lots to think about this week about speech, and violence, and rhetoric, and public discourse, and the relationship between words and action. Do suggestions through the media result in horrible actions by unstable people with guns? Do our media create some kind of foul soup of fear and hatred that we're all swimming in?

The answer to this is not tidy, and it's never going to be.

We have free speech. This means people can get up and say whatever idiotic stuff they want. Or they can say smart stuff, too. Or not. It's the ability to speak that matters, not what is said. There are very, very, very good reasons for this. I would refer you to "Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee" by Nat Hentoff.

We also have media all over everything, and a culture in which you win attention - and sometimes a lot of money - by being extreme. Extremely thin, or loud, or rich, or violent, or eccentric, or messy, or willing to do extreme things on a reality show, just extremely extreme. A person who is good at playing the piano is nice, but a five-year-old who can play a Beethoven concerto underwater is going to win the day.

That's just basic human psychology. We look at the extremes. They capture attention.

Problem is, attention in our media = money. And money gets equated with power.

So, extremes are going to get attention. That's just how it is.

And, we have free speech. So people are going to say extreme stuff, attract attention, and make a living in this way. Advertisers want viewers. This will continue.

Here's where the danger comes: Attention and money in our society - and the power we give those things - are often confused with leadership. We give people who get a lot of attention attributes that they do not have. The fact that a lot of them make a lot of money only makes them look more powerful. And it's self-reinforcing. We pay more attention, that person seems more powerful, and pretty soon they may really be influencing some things. Just by attracting attention.

This is when we make a big mistake by treating people who attract attention, who get advertising revenue, as leaders. They are not leaders. They are tapping into the power you get when you are extreme and attract a lot of attention.

Real leaders often are people you have never heard of and will never hear of. They are the ones who are doing the right thing, because it is the right thing to do. They don't often have agents, or media contracts. They may not have a lot of money either. Leading is action and example. And if that attracts attention, great. Martin Luther King comes to mind. Amelia Earhart comes to mind.

So, take back your power. Make your decisions about what noise you will or won't listen to. See people in the public eye for what they are, mooshy humans with a camera pointed at them and a lighting crew.

And don't buy into the notion that something has to have a camera pointed at it to be worthy. In fact, it might just be the opposite. Because the extreme people who are playing the money game on the screen are just another bunch of folks trying to feed their egos and get rich. We all have egos, we all want to make a living. This is no different.

We're getting it backwards, giving attention to what's on camera rather than turning the camera toward what's worthy of attention.

And, we all have a chance to show leadership by putting aside the extreme media extravaganza, and doing the right thing because it's the right thing to do. It's not even that hard, there's this convenient button at the corner of the remote that really helps.

Media are going to be used to be extreme, to attract attention, to divide people, to scare people, to put out idiotic ideas and to make money. Because it works.

But turn your own camera, your attention, toward things that matter and people who are deserving.