“Perhaps it’s time to rethink toughness or at least detach it from hardness…”

Alex Kane talks about the role of Omerta in Sinn Fein’s success. It’s a pejorative description (in common usage) which ties the party to the Tony Soprano end of  politics. So, the reasoning goes, there is no hope of clarity on the McKay-Bryson affair because everyone will stand to and keep quiet.

But there’s another side to success in politics, and that’s an anchor in a shared common purpose. It applies to most successful political parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP included. Some of the UK Labour party’s difficulties arise from the fact that the bonds of their particular belief (or story) are weakening.

David Brooks in the New York Times has some useful comments to make on the matter of toughness (as opposed to hardness or cynical detachment) in politics and in life in general…

Perhaps it’s time to rethink toughness or at least detach it from hardness. Being emotionally resilient is not some defensive posture. It’s not having some armor surrounding you so that nothing can hurt you.

The people we admire for being resilient are not hard; they are ardent. They have a fervent commitment to some cause, some ideal or some relationship. That higher yearning enables them to withstand setbacks, pain and betrayal.

Such people are, as they say in the martial arts world, strong like water. A blow might sink into them, and when it does they are profoundly affected by it. But they can absorb the blow because it’s short term while their natural shape is long term.


People are much stronger than they think they are when in pursuit of their telos, their purpose for living. As Nietzsche put it, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

In short, emotional fragility is not only caused by overprotective parenting. It’s also caused by anything that makes it harder for people to find their telos. It’s caused by the culture of modern psychology, which sometimes tries to talk about psychological traits in isolation from moral purposes.

It’s caused by the ethos of the modern university, which in the name of “critical thinking” encourages students to be detached and corrosively skeptical. It’s caused by the status code of modern meritocracy, which encourages people to pursue success symbols that they don’t actually desire.

We are all fragile when we don’t know what our purpose is, when we haven’t thrown ourselves with abandon into a social role, when we haven’t committed ourselves to certain people, when we feel like a swimmer in an ocean with no edge.

If you really want people to be tough, make them idealistic for some cause, make them tender for some other person, make them committed to some worldview that puts today’s temporary pain in the context of a larger hope. [Emphasis added]

A sense of shared telos (Wikipedia here) is much closer to defining real strength within most political enterprises: not least because a strongly shared moral purpose is essential to political success. It is not (all of it) dependent on mistrust of strangers or the media, or indeed fear of retribution.

Or indeed, feeling impelled to lie when it becomes serious.