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Strictly Speaking



If, as he did in his Oscar-wnning role as Sam Garrard, Tommy Lee Jones didn’t want his detectives using words that weren’t 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, shouldn’t there be antiactive, and isn’t 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.

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