Paul F. deLespinasse is professor emeritus of political science and computer science at Adrian College.
President Trump recently suggested that disinfectant--- a strong poison--- might be used internally to treat COVID-19. After howls from medical experts, he claimed that he had been being sarcastic.
Trump often argues that he didn't really mean to say something that got him into trouble. Sometimes he claims he was only joking.
We all need to be careful about joking or sarcasm, since some people may take us seriously. I learned this the hard way. I wrote a satirical column arguing that we could avoid another Great Depression if the government froze prices on the stock market so it couldn't crash. This was economic madness, but I thought I had laid the nonsense on so thick that everyone would get the point.
They didn't! An editorial in one of the newspapers that published my piece argued that I did not understand basic economics and that my proposal was crazy.
If Trump really jokes and waxes sarcastic a lot, it is not a good idea. As Calvin Coolidge said, "the words of the president have enormous weight and ought not to be used indiscriminately."
Communicating clearly is crucial for anyone seeking to be a good leader. Science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein said that the best class he had at the U.S. Naval Academy taught cadets how to write orders.
The future officers were given a situation they might encounter and each wrote a concise order telling subordinates what to do about it. Each order was then subjected to withering criticism by instructor and the other cadets, pointing out ambiguities, possible misinterpretations, and bad side effects if the order was executed as written. Then, back to the drawing board.
Speaking of ambiguities, one of my former students who became an FBI agent told me an interesting story about long-time director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover wanted memos typed with large margins at the top, bottom, and sides so he could write instructions to his staff about what to do about them, but he also strictly limited the number of pages per memo. One time someone crammed more words into a memo by reducing the size of the margins. The irritated Hoover scrawled "watch the borders" on it. Panicked subordinates immediately sent extra agents to watch the borders with Canada and Mexico!.
According to Snopes this story was a great exaggeration of an actual incident. But true or not, it illustrates the dangers that imprecise communications could have when coming from a powerful person.
Perhaps Mr. Trump's problem here is that he has been engaging in brainstorming in public. Brainstorming is an excellent way to generate options for dealing with a problem. To be effective, it must include two stages. First, participants put forward as many ideas as they can about how to tackle the problem. During this stage it is out of order for anyone to voice objections or to point out problems, no matter how wild the idea may seem. The second stage requires critical examination of the accumulated options, considering whether they would work at all, their costs, and any bad side effects they might produce.
Mr. Trump appears to be outstanding at the first stage of brainstorming, and ideas like prescribing consumption of disinfectant to treat COVID-19 may be what he sometimes comes up with. Trump was reasoning by analogy: if disinfectant destroys coronavirus on countertops, why wouldn't it also do so inside people?
Unfortunately, Trump articulated this wild idea in public before he and his staff had subjected it to the critical examination required by the second stage of brainstorming. If taken seriously by some people, his comment could have far more serious consequences than supposedly occurred after J Edgar Hoover's ambiguous orders on the memo.
Trump should emulate President Coolidge more!
Paul F. deLespinasse is professor emeritus of political science and computer science at Adrian College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.