On style and substance

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When logic was formalized in ancient Greece, it separated arguments from those who made them.

Arguments should be tested as valid or not on their own merit, rather than on the credibility of those making them. At times, we forget this simple principle.

The legal system doesn’t help, either. In case after case, lawyers and juries assess the guilt or innocence of defendants not only in terms of the facts, but also on their moral character or that of witnesses. What does good moral character have to do with the fact that someone committed a crime? Does it matter how the defendant dresses to court?

Businesses interview job applicants looking at how they dress, how they handle themselves, as much as they care about their resumes. Should it matter that an employee is unpleasant, even deficient when it comes to hygiene, when assessing job performance?

Perhaps the best way of thinking about this is the famous phrase “all sizzle, no steak” as a way to enforce in the marketing world that style always trumps substance: we are drawn by the ad and are disappointed by the product.

It’s with this in mind that we keep on hearing complaints about the style of Mayor Steve Bach who offends some councilmembers. Are they listening to what he says? Or are they more concerned with how he says it? Would they rather have a friendly, smooth-talking snake-oil salesman than an executive who gets things done?

Not only is the focus on style misplaced, it sometimes leave substance unexamined. Local church leaders, from the mega-churches in the north of town to small, local ones in the south, are preachers and social workers, ministering to their congregants in finely styled soliloquies. But what are they doing in the public square?

Churches receive numerous local and federal tax benefits, because there is a deep sense of respect for their religious role in the social contract. Would it be style or substance if we ask each of the churches in town to adopt a park in town and take care of it because of shortfalls in city budgets? Is it style or substance when some of them speak out in the public square about poverty and hunger, child abuse and indigent health care? Catholic Charities runs Marion House downtown — style or substance?

The religious style, just like that of public officials, may be important in retaining civility, ensuring we interact peacefully in the public square. But focusing on style alone may miss the opportunity to have candid and heart-wrenching dialogues about the things that matter most to the good life in our city.

I hear colleagues and acquaintances insist: “He is a good guy.” or “She is really nice.” These statements might be true, but they still tell me nothing about their competence and substance: Are we paying them to be nice or to get a job done? I’d readily give up bed-side manners for the competence of a surgeon anytime.

There are businesses, especially hospitality, where style seems more important than substance. Waiters are supposed to be nice and friendly, smile and remain cheerful no matter how rude the customer. But wouldn’t you rather have a waitperson bring you the right dish or drink without a smile than a smiling waitperson screw it up?

Is it a matter of style when the charming, grandfatherly Chuck Murphy, the chairman of the downtown task force, and the likeable Steve Cox, the new economic tsar, promote the idea of downtown surveillance camera? Is the substance the police statistics about reducing crime?

Or is the substance different: what is the root of the problem? Is it three Tejon Street clubs where fighting is rampant? So, why not deal with them, rather than suggest turning downtown into a prison-yard with surveillance cameras? Are cameras now stylish?

Is it style or substance when Scott Hente, the council president, shirks his oversight responsibilities as chairman of Colorado Springs Utilities or board member of Urban Renewal Authority?

Is it style or substance when his second-in-command, Councilwoman Jan Martin, works behind closed doors to appoint her loyalists to task forces?

Is it style or substance when Councilman Bernie Herpin refuses to deal with Regional Building Department publicly as its commissioner?

Is it style or substance when Councilman Tim Leigh doesn’t filter his public statements?

The more you think about it, the more you’d agree that we want the steak and care less about the sizzle, that we want to respect our public officials rather than like them as people. As Easter is upon us, taking stock of the deeper lesson of renewal may resonate with our political leaders: resurrect the core of what should be done without losing your civility with each other.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com