“Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?”

This week, I will reread Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” which includes the oft-(mis)quoted epigram, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” In my work (editor, tutor, teacher, among other gigs), I often advised writers to strive for consistency (in voice, tense, naming conventions, punctuation, “messaging,” etc.), referring them, when appropriate, to related passages in the assigned grammar book and / or style manual. “Isn’t consistency the hobgoblin of small minds?” some responded, clearly frustrated that more effort was required of them. In the interests of civility (and looming deadlines), I usually let the (mis)quote pass unchallenged. (Although, yes, especially when I worked in the university writing center, I itched to reply, “Define consistency. Define hobgoblin.“)

One afternoon about twenty-six years ago, though, I did not. A new claims attorney — one who had repeatedly communicated his contempt for the requirement that all submissions to company publications go through my office (“You’re kidding, right?”) — interrupted my review of his submission to the firm’s annual report, theatrically sighing, “You know, [insert my first name here], consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” It is difficult to determine which stung more, the smug mansplaining or his secretary’s smirk.

“You know, [insert his first name here],” I replied. And, yes, I had time enough to choose, “You’re right,” or, “Yeah,” or an uneasy but conciliatory you’re-the-man giggle. Instead, I continued, “The quote is, ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.’ And here’s what I’m thinking: I’m thinking that Mr. [insert surname of firm president] would share my view that closely adhering to the company style guide he helped me pen would represent an, oh, I don’t know, wise consistency.”

The beat during which his face so thoroughly betrayed his thoughts (he may as well have called me the epithet) caused his secretary to waver in her allegiance — but only momentarily. “Whatever. Leave the changes for [insert secretary’s name] to input. Thanks.”

“Yeah. Whatever. Thanks,” she said without looking up, when I placed the marked-up submission in her box.

Yeah. Whatever.

This is a frustrating and, yes, embarrassing recollection, for many reasons, not the least of which is this: It was so petty. It was so terribly, terribly petty. Small. And Emerson wasn’t talking about company “messaging,” grammar or punctuation conventions, style guides or publishing formats. He was talking about something… something life-sized.

Or larger.

From the essay:

The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them. […] A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

Read. Think. Learn.

Note: This entry was adapted from a 2004 post to my previous site.

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