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  • Reverend James Squire

Less Is More

This past week, I watched Hamilton again for the third or fourth time. Each time I watch it lines stand out. Recently I was struck by the words of Aaron Burr to Alexander Hamilton regarding how to be successful. Burr said: “Talk less. Smile more.” The wisdom of “less is more” has its origin in the final verse of the 1855 poem by Robert Browning, “Andrea del Sarto,” named after the Italian painter. “Well, less is more, Lucretia, I am judged.”

The wisdom of that short phrase is a piece of wisdom for the ages. We have a variation of it in the biblical record in the book of Proverbs 15:16: “Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth in turmoil. For me it has more to do with how to live life than it has to do with contrasting levels of wealth.

Coco Chanel once advised about the outfits that women wear and their accessories which became the secret to her success: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.”

The phrase is most associated with the architect Ludwig Mies Van Der Roche, who worked in the early and middle of the 20th century and ushered in modern architecture. I worked with Robert Venturi, one of the greatest architects of the 20th century, in designing the Class of 1944 Chapel on the Newtown Square Campus of EA. I learned that his motto was “less is poor”, but the chapel that he and his wife, Denise Scott Brown, created was a perfect example of less is more. There was not a square inch of wasted space with an economy of design. In addition, no one could say, “I saw something like this before.”

Keep in mind the axiom that “God gave us two ears and one mouth” so that we would know to listen twice as much as we speak. One of the best ways to honor another person is to adhere to this simple but important strategy for a rewarding life. It is one of the first things that you learn in advanced experiences in counseling for it is the foundation upon which a helping relationship is born.

What if “less is more” was a truth for the training of police officers. These three words are a theme that is seen clearly during the trial of Derek Chauvin. He had six incidents of excessive force before he put his knee on the neck of George Floyd.

There is a similar pattern to other deaths of black men and women. The mantra seems to be “shoot to kill.” That is the theme in almost every death of a black person. Somehow that has been ingrained into some police in our nation. There has been important research highlighted in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink. When the police fire a gun at another human being, it is traumatizing to the police officer. It is not like what we see on the silver screen. It is also one of the reasons for post traumatic stress syndrome in our armed forces fighting abroad.

There are incidents where the police have to use deadly force when they have a real threat to their lives, but that is not the pattern that we see addressed in the Black Lives Matter Movement. They are trained to shoot first and then ask questions later. Let’s reverse that so that instinctively we train and put before police signage at every turn that “Less Is More.” If Chanel in the fashion world can do it and if the world of architecture can adopt it, why not the world of law enforcement.

Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics, is the founder of the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke. One of my students, David Cornell ‘88, reflected on Ariely’s research in a chapel address that “reminders of morality right at the point where people are making a decision appear to have an outsized effect on behavior. According to Ariely’s experiments, his observations arise from hard data that supports a contention that having a regular, recurring reminders of what ‘to do’ are far more effective than being told what NOT to do.”

Imagine at police training, at police headquarters, and in squad cars having the reminder for people to see that “Less Is More”. The world of sports knows how a message right before a game shapes an athlete’s attitude. That is why each Notre Dame Football Player touches the sign over the doorway as they exit to the stadium which reads: “Play Like A Champion Today.”

90% of the police in England do not carry guns. Their motto is “Working Together for a Safer London.” In 1955 the Los Angeles Police Force had a contest for their members to come up with a motto for the department. Officer Joseph S. Dorobek won the contest. His submission for a motto was, “Protect and Serve.”

Chauvin’s trial is summarized by “less is more” to stand against his excessive force used against George Floyd. What a perfect time to remind the police that “less is more.” Less force, more safety; less times a gun is fired, more lives are saved; less perceived as the enemy, more times perceived as friend. Three small words with a big idea! BLACK LIVES MATTER! LESS IS MORE! Makes sense to me!

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