David L. Hoof

Strictly Speaking


April 15, 2014

Tags: proactive, active, reactive, nonreactive, prepared, invoolved


If, as he did in his Oscar-wnning role as Sam Garrard, Tommy Lee Jones didnít want his detectives using words that werenít words, certainly he would have forbidden the upstart proactive, which by agreement has escaped the scorn of spell checking programs simply because the sound is so common. But having no generally agreed-upon definition, it becomes a view of an elephant as felt by seven (and more) different blind men. Everyone says, ah, proactive as the blind men say, ah, elephant, and everyone has a different idea of what it means.

In context it always sounds good, even when decoupled from specific proposals. Perhaps it means not sleeping at the switch, or behaving as the State Department did in allowing a visa to remain valid for a suicide bomber who boards an airliner bound for the United States, due to arrive in Detroit on Christmas Day, which should have flagged a higher level of alert than simply being a Sunday, December 7, 1941.

Going back to figuring out what is being said as it relates to other words, it decomposes to pro = for and active = of or relating to action. Arguably the German Wehrmacht was entirely proactive when it stormed into Poland on September 1, 1939, but more important than wanting or favoring action, it took action and, militarily it was an effective action.

Is a proactive person better than an active person? Is a proactive person the opposite of a reactive person, or can being proactive in a reactionary way, as in waging war against a country in no way responsible for 9/11, at the expense of credibility in a global perspective? If there is an opposite of proactive, shouldnít there be antiactive, and isnít this passive? If so proactive would be nonpassive. Or would it?

The use of the word, simply mentioning it in a press conference, seems to endow the speaker with a fortitude uncommitted to any subsequent action, or of any accountability per the intended proactivity. It is magic, a spell that makes listeners relax and nod their heads, feeling better for hearing it even if it is not clear what is meant, or how the condition of proactivity is linked to any advantages as measured by traditional cost-to-benefit analysis.

Proactivity went off the meter when one Republican senator, without any derivative power as commander-in-chief, claimed America would do anything to defend itself. Perhaps he was proposing a balance between imports and exports, arguable a good start. But perhaps he was proposing a kind of pre-emptive nuclear scorched earth policy on anyone suspected of being linked to al Qaida and weapons of mass destruction, this objective advancing on the attack agenda, all at once and proactively, Afghanistan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, North Korea, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, even without becoming hysterically overimaginative.

If and only if proactivity were examined for a common meaning agreed upon by all listeners should audiences begin nodding their heads and whispering amen. Until that time it will be necessary to do more than simply breaking the silence with noise, and to communicate what, exactly, is meant.

Until then bureaucratic and military speakers, corporate heads and political candidates will continue to make cheap capital with this word, because it is all things to all people while requiring nothing in particular to follow.

Selected Works

suspense mystery
For every emerging independent woman today, men can be little better than annoying at best and downright monstrous at worst. A creation of a stolen NSA computer program, Fiona Halloran is launched into the present to assist faltering novelist Andy Delaney capture the market that has evaded him, the one for and about women. But thereís an emerging risk: increasing personal danger to them both. This doesnít stop when they finish his latest novel, Babes & Bastards. It just spills over to the next best seller in a series starring Fiona Halloran, Nun No More. Look for it soon in a bookstore near you.
In the dying Montana town of Sanctuary, helf-Crow Deputy Redfawn Kravitz relentlessly tracks the killer of Senate candidate Jeb Holloway, who then starts picking off the best suspects, one-by-one.
Using only sounds as clues, a blind man must locate his six-year-old niece before kidnappers kill her.
historical mystery
Just before Oktoberfest in 1931, Adolf Hitler's niece and secret lover is found dead in a locked room in the Fuhrer's Munich flat. Pressured by the Nazis, the police rule it a suicide, but evidence suggests a cold blooded execution. If the killer can be outed, widespread outrage will thwart a maniac's rush to power.
A cheated wife goes way overboard to get revenge on - and a fair settlement from -- her uberrich husband, with terrifyingly hysterical results.
literary mystery
Little Gods is prep school noir, like A Separate Peace as if it were written by Alfred Hitchcock.
action adventure
A clandestine biowar attack on America reduces society to medieval chaos.
Approaching Christmas, a winter blizzard locks Chicago in snow. Among its residents, retired FBI poisons expert Tad Lindholm is a haunted man. Haunted by his past, haunted by his recently dead lover Yvette, haunted by the long shadows of too many empty booze bottles, haunted by depression, and tempted by an arsenal of deadly doses to end it all. At the same time, he is trapped by lingering suspicions that he alone synthesized the traceless toxins responsible for recent deaths. Numb with stubbornness, encircled by intersecting mysteries, Lindholm pursues the real killers among his enemies, only to discover an unimaginably personal betrayal.