The Importance of Flattery

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Flattery has a bad name. It’s associated with saying something upbeat but untrue in

Flattery has a bad name. It’s associated with saying something upbeat but untrue in

order to hoodwink its unsuspecting target for low personal gain. In Aesop’s famous

fable, The Fox and the Crow, an ugly crow has found a piece of cheese and retired to

a branch to eat it. A sly fox, wanting it for himself, flatters the crow, calling it

beautiful and wondering whether its voice will be as sweet as its appearance. The crow

lets out a horrific screeching sound and the cheese drops straight into the fox’s gaping

expectant mocking jaw. But there’s another form of flattery with more valuable and ethical

ambitions. Parents of small children invariably discover its uses – which deserve to be

better known and practiced around all age groups. Let’s imagine that a child isn’t

yet entirely kind to their brother, or good at drawing, or a perfect cook or helpful around

the house – but the parent declares that they are so as to encourage and make more

concrete what is as yet only tentative and fragile in their ambivalent nature. The child

is being helped to end up as some of the things he or she has already been described as being. In

1956, the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer was invited to create a new capital city for

his nation: Brasilia. Brazil is a country of frenetic economic activity, of rainforest

and Amazonian villages, favelas, soccer, beaches and intense disagreement about political priorities…

none of which is apparent from contemplation of the beautiful, serene, futuristic rational

architecture of Brasilia. One day, the buildings propose, Brazil will be a place where rationality

is powerful; where order and harmony reign; where elegance is normal. There will be no

more corruption or chaos. In offices, efficient secretaries will type up judicious briefing

notes; the filing systems will be perfect – nothing will get lost, overlooked, neglected

or mislaid; negotiations will take place in an atmosphere of impersonal wisdom. The country

will be perfectly managed. Oscar Niemeyer’s capital is an essay in flattery. It hints

that certain desirable qualities which are as yet only very latent in Brazil could one day be central

to the country and its governing class. Shortly after the capital buildings were completed,

a journalist asked Niemeyer why he had designed a capital that was so dramatically unlike

the country it was meant to represent. ‘It won’t be one day,’ said Niemeyer – with

a wry smile. Brazilians continue to wait for that day. And the finest buildings of Brasilia continue

to inspire. We need flattery because we so badly need to be guided to develop beyond

what we are right now. We need other people’s belief in us to bolster our capacities for

reform and growth. We need a chance to grow into the person we have flatteringly been

described as already being. Consider a painting by Velázquez, The Surrender of Breda. There’s

been a battle between Spain and the Netherlands. Spain has won. The picture shows the Spanish

general, Spinola receiving the key to the city of Breda from the representative of the

defeated Dutch forces, Justin of Nassau. What’s striking is how cordial everything is. Historians

report that both sides behaved extremely well. There was no recrimination or wanton bloodshed.

The painting is a memorial to unusually noble conduct. But it’s not a comprehensive or

accurate account of war or sieges; just as Brasilia is not a completely accurate presentation

of what Brazil is like. Instead, each of these works presents an ideal in the hope of generating

a subsequent reality. We should learn to be gentler on flattery and the energy it can

lend us to move towards greater generosity, intelligence and wisdom. We should use its

benign power in order to bring about a world where we’ll more often be able simply to

praise one another, and no longer merely just to flatter.

We believe in making the world a more emotionally intelligent place

and to that end we have now also published some extraordinary books.

As well as other merchandise that reinforces some of the other themes illustrated in our videos.

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