Sometimes it sweeps me: Proportionality matters – and we seem to be losing it. These days, big things are considered little, little things big. Cultural erosion is deemed acceptable, along with loss of history and science – while one insult ruins our day. Lack of military readiness is ho-hum, while a patriotic tweet triggers an internet explosion about race, histrionics, and more backlash.
Like losing our sense of taste or smell, you can lose your sense of proportionality. It is like losing balance, or faith, or depth of understanding. Society is doing that. Loss of proportionality is more than unhealthy. It leads to growing disorientation, irrationality, irascibility, and bad choices.
When you misjudge threats and friends, you stumble. If you misunderstand security and civic cohesion, you become vulnerable, open yourself to bad actors. Globally, if we imagine Iran and China are just misunderstood friends, minimizing the risk to allies, we invite danger.
On the domestic and personal sides, if we blow up minor disagreements into big, lifechanging confrontations and throw-downs, indulging anger on matters of policy not principle, we lose.
Conversely, if we obsess on personalities, or see enemies behind every tree, we miss the chance for agreement. Instead of harmony, we get disharmony. Instead of balance, we get off balance. This wastes time, goodwill, and erodes confidence – in our nation, institutions, and each other.
The odd thing about loss of proportionality, which can creep on you, is it can be hard to see, and harder to accept. When everything changes just a little each day, big things get missed. Whether keeping an agreement going, or fostering professional discipline, or reacting to the latest crazy news, we can lose perspective without realizing it – get worked up over something not worth it.
If you suddenly lose your sense of taste or smell, as many did during COVID, you promptly know it. The reality is a daily event, until the missing sense returns. If you lose wellbeing from stress or an event, you know that too – you may have trouble sleeping, eating, and thinking.
But when we lose a sense of proportionality, it happens gradually – until one day we wake up and find ourselves out of sync with half the world, putting things in bold relief that do not deserve much attention, while missing the big things, the ones that should matter.
All of this is not to say big things do not exist. Of course, some things deserve high attention, from foreign wars to culture wars, public integrity to public health and safety, but not everything is a “crisis.” Not everything is reason to fret, panic, cut people out, condemn, or go ballistic.
If all this seems common sense, it probably is. Then again, we often forget common sense, until we realize that what we used to do without thinking – and knew intuitively – is worth recalling.
A funny story makes the point, or might help it stick. Reacting to things is what we do every day – and proportionality really boils down to good judgment, how we react. Default to calm helps.
Growing up in rural Maine, we raised rabbits as pets, not to eat. We started with one, but soon each of the four kids needed one. Despite hutches enveloped in chicken wire, we had 67 rabbits within six months. Showing no sense of proportion …they escaped, communed, and bang, 67.
But this is just prologue. With no internet, lots of land, time, and imagination, we began to think kittens might be fun. After getting 67 rabbits in six months, a parental dictate came down: No kittens. This was disappointing, but appeals to the parental powers failed to change the dictate.
Then one day, a school friend happened to be giving way kittens. Our repeat appeals to the parental forces failed, ending in a second parental dictate: “The topic will not be raised again.”
Still, kittens seemed such a nice distraction – from rabbits, homework, and chores. The friend asked how we kept our rabbits. We said, in wooden hutches, dozens, side yard. They nodded.
A few days later, one of our parents returned from a morning walk among the hutches, with a surprising announcement. We were shocked – mostly at the proportionality of the reaction.
That morning we all learned, to our delight, that “one of the rabbits gave birth to five bunnies and a kitten.” We were out the door in a flash. To this day, we have no idea how it happened.
What we do recall with clarity – is the proportionality of the parental response, tempered. In time we ended up with more kittens, no one worse for it. Proportionality … is worth remembering.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.