Thursday, May 08, 2008

Tactical versus strategic thinking...

...or, when and when not to smack-down.

There's a very strong tendency, in the academic world, to contest disagreements via direct, immediate, and verbose confrontation; that is, to try to prevail right then, in the midst of the argument and preferably in front of an audience of one's peers. Maybe that's a result of the old saw "the reason the battles in academia are so ferocious is because the stakes are so small," or that most academics are trained to promptly, verbally, and confrontationally assault what they perceive to be weak intellectual positions, or--in my own case--a result of growing up in a verbose, competitive, and rather dysfunctional family environment, in which being able to make your case louder than everyone else was perceived as an essential emotional survival skill.

And, mostly, academics are reasonably comfortable--or at least familiar with--this kind of discourse. But it tends to make them short-term thinkers. Tactical thinkers. People who only see as far as winning the current skirmish, regardless of whether it gains you control of terrain that lets you win long-term. The temptation, when you're confronted with defensive pomposity--the kind of things that Tony Snow and Ron Ziegler and Donald Rumsfeld used to specialize in, before they were exposed as the cowardly phony windbags they are--is to obliterate: to take great glee in systematically dismantling the chink in the other party's argument. This is gratifying, and familiar, and the thing we're trained to do, and the yardstick by which we measure victory. To jam forward under fire and storm that hill.

But this doesn't always work. It's not always the smart thing to do, long-term. It may well lead to a temporary victory but a long-term loss of terrain. In short, it's not strategic thinking.

In academia, this usually means forgoing the short-term glee of destroying somebody's argument, exposing their errors, calling them on their bullshit, in favor of the moral and strategic high ground of "working toward the common good." This does not mean assenting to bullshit, or to excessive or misleading humility--in fact, I once said, in response to an inapposite, irrelevant, and implicitly-insulting statement, "with respect, I'm going to decline to accept that particular proposition"--but it can very well mean eschewing the gleeful satisfaction of smacking-down the position of somebody trying to conceal their own system's malfunction, in favor of retaining the behavioral high ground; deferring the satisfaction of publicly dismantling the specious argument; holding-off on telling them "there is no fucking way I am going to participate in this foolish runaround again"--telling them later, if at all. As my buddy Coop says "if you wait, you always have the option of going nuclear. Once you've done it, it's over--you've got no place else to go."

That's strategic thinking. Takes some maturity.

Below the jump: Wellington, the man who out-generaled every one of Napoleon's marshals, out-thinking Bonaparte himself at Waterloo: "Now, Maitland! Now's your time!"

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