Monday, July 17, 2006

Too Extreme? 

My colleague, Peter Shinbach, had this response to the essay posted last Friday:

First, your argument seems based on the premise that something written or said is either "transparent" or a lie. That premise occurred to me as I read the fourth paragraph. I don't, for example, agree that saying "no comment" when you know the answer is a lie. It's merely your choice, regardless of the motivation, to not answer a question. If, for example, (your daughter)knows that you've bought her birthday present and asks you what it is, are you lying if you say to her "I won't tell you," the equivalent of "no comment?"My point is that there is a lot that is neither lie nor transparent. Let's call it the rhetorical middle ground. It's something you avoid walking on in your argument. It's like having no news sources other than Bill O'Reilly or Al Franken. (Both of whom, particularly the former, I believe are transparent liars.)

But the second MIA in your treatise is one that I find is equally MIA in virtually every other thing I've read about "transparency" in the last year, the period when "transparency" became one of those corporate catchwords whose meaning is suspect. Which brings me to my point: what, the hell, is "transparency?" Nobody who preaches it defines it. You come close, by implication, in your final paragraph. But, after reading your white paper, I still don't know what you mean by "transparency." And I don't know what others -- ranging from the Wharton School, at one end of the spectrum, all the way to bloggers at the other end -- mean either. So, rather than a critical dissertation on the implications and tactics of lying vs. transparency, I'd welcome one that defines & discusses the various layers of "transparency" -- from Windex-clear to opaque to obscured.

These are good points. The article, however, was looking at real instances in which we use euphemisms to cover truths and not instances where we use "no comment" or the equivalent. Peter is correct that there is no lying if one says positively that one will not disclose the facts of a case. The problem is that in too many instances we are called upon to say something that is a partial truth -- a lie -- rather than the whole truth. We say what is socially acceptable, so we never think of what we are doing. This is the case, for example, when we say an executive who is drying out at a clinic from alcoholism is said to be at enjoying a vacation at a health spa. Well, yes and no.

I agree with Peter's second point. I don't know what transparency is either. The article discusses the difficulty of the term and suggests another word might be better employed. There is little or no transparency given the dictionary definition of the word, unless one includes instances where light filters through nearly opaque material. PR has again adopted imprecise terms and assumed everyone knows what we mean. I'm not sure "bright-line" definitions of transparency are possible or desirable. I'd rather get rid of the word. Perhaps a better term is "disclosure," even though that can get mixed up with Security and Exchange Commission rules of what must be told to investors.


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