Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Baseball. Renoir. Russell. And Renewal.

Not too long ago I wrote a post where I said something very unscientific. That’s my prerogative—it’s my blog and I earn no money. I’m allowed to be a little slapdash. Not just my typos—I’m only human, after all—but my raft of unsupported opinions.
A base-ball game in Hoboken, New Jersey as seen by Messers Currier and Ives,

In any event I wrote a post in which I made a guess. I said that I think most advertising people prefer baseball to other sports because baseball, like advertising, is a sport where if you win 60% of your games, you’re a champion. Or get 27 hits out of 100 at bats, and you’re way ahead of the game.

Like advertising, baseball is a game based on failure. No one, even the smartest person is right much more than 50% of the time. The trick isn’t being right, it’s learning from the mistakes you make and doing better next time.

Most of the good people in the industry, no matter what discipline they’re in, do not drip with confidence. They understand, in the words of Bill Bernbach that advertising is “fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”

Art is mistakes that work out. Advertising might be too. To get attention, you have to say things in ways no one ever has before. That’s risky.

A Renoir self-portrait.

No artist is confident in her work. No one is sure what they do is good, different, for the ages. Even Pierre-August Renoir is quoted as having said about painting at the age of 78, “I think I’m beginning to learn something about it.” (Renoir raised self-deprecation to an art-form, he also said, “It is after you have lost your teeth that you can afford to buy steaks.”)

Over the last few years, in the world and in advertising, a sneaky bombast has emerged that masks itself as confidence. To my eyes it seems that half the people that roam the halls of agencies today are so puffed out with self-importance that you can’t squeeze more then 40 or 70 of them in a single conference room.

The prevailing way of thinking is, I have to show a suave confidence or clients won’t believe me and people in the agency won’t respect me.

I’ve never been that way.

I think admitting doubt is the greatest strength a human can have. And asserting that you “know,” or you’ve found the one true way, is to my mind, intellectual terrorism. No one likes a zealot—especially those people who know what the word zealot means.

Bernbach was said to have carried a card around in his wallet reading, “Maybe he’s right.” And Czeslaw Milosz attributed the epigram below to an ancient Jew from Galacia.

“When someone is honestly 55% right, that's very good and there's no use wrangling. And if someone is 60% right, it's wonderful, it's great luck, and let him thank God. But what's to be said about 75% right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100% right? Whoever says he's 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.”

Yet today, however, from the leaders of our country, to religious leaders, to business leaders, to advertising people, phony confidence seems to win friends and influence people.

However, as the Weird Sisters chanted in Macbeth, “Fair is foul and foul is fair.”

In other words, our world is topsy-turvy and our trip on this formerly blue marble is just a cockeyed-caravan with a wheel about to fly off an axle.

Some years ago, the brilliant and legendary Dave Trott sent me a note about Bertrand Russell’s “Liberal Decalogue.” I’ve been carrying with me for ten years.
Bertrand Russell by Roger Fry
I could be wrong about this, but if the industry and the world wants to start remaking itself if we ever get through our latest Pandemic—and before the greater crisis of Climate Change starts killing and displacing billions of people, this might be a good place to start.

It’s a good way to think about who we are, what we know, how we treat others and how to behave.

by Bertrand Russell

"A Liberal Decalogue" is quoted from The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, Vol. 3: 1944-1969, p. 71--72.

Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:
  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent that in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool's paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

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