Two of the best surveys of steps required to eliminate nuclear weapons were honchoed by the Carnegie Endowment (Universal Compliance, 2007) and the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission chaired by Hans Blix (Weapons of Terror, 2006). Both compendiums use the words “should,” “need,” and “must” over 400 times. It is undeniably true that hundreds of steps are required for the world to be completely disenthralled with nuclear weapons. These two surveys identify them in a comprehensive and highly professional manner, but the abundance of “shoulds” drives me nuts.
We’ve all been told by parents and authority figures what we should, need, and must do. The more we hear these words in our personal lives, the more most of us are inclined to tune out. So why, when it comes to public policy, do we often employ words that undermine our powers of persuasion?
The public arena has no shortage of scolds and nags. Want your daily dose of shoulds? Try the New York Times editorial page. Sample: “Pakistan After Bin Laden,” May 13, 640 words, five shoulds, four needs, and one must. Neocons in the George W. Bush administration flourished and flamed out over the worlds should, must, and need. Shoulds are the stock-in-trade of politicians, second-guessers, talking heads, op-ed writers and, yes, think tanks. I’ve written my share of shoulds. But the thinner my hair gets, the less I use the word should. Now I find myself bypassing authors whose stock-in-trade is shoulds.
Shoulds often become the ammunition of those who stay far away from the front lines. I’m way more interested in how than in should. All too often, shoulds become a substitute for how. If those who use the word should engaged more in the actuality of how, they would dispense more useful advice and we’d learn more from their writing.
Back when I was grading papers on my computer at the University of Virginia, whenever a plethora of shoulds, musts, and needs appeared in a student essay, I’d put them in bold and then type in capital letters THESE ARE NOT ANALYTICAL WORDS. A hard habit to break.
My research assistants and interns at Stimson are thankfully drawn to Washington to improve U.S. national security policy. Invariably, my least favorite words appear as they start drafting short writing assignments. We work on excising these words from their vocabulary. Aspiring wonks: my suggestion is to first demonstrate through value-added research why your elders “should” pay heed to your advice. And then, after doing so, continue to suppress the impulse of using the words should, need, and must.
Scolds and nags do serve a useful purpose by demanding higher standards of those who work on the front lines. But righteous indignation will wear out your welcome pretty quickly. Shoulds usually serve the psychic health of the disapprover more than the policy changes the disapprover wants. When the answer to how is should, outrage chases its tail. True prophetic voices are very rare. One way to identify them is the use the words “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not,” which is far more of an attention getter than “should.”