by Lynn S. Schwebach
Promising to light up a marijuana joint if you win a congressional seat is original, but does it qualify as truly creative?
“It’s certainly novel and original,” said Dean Keith Simonton, Ph.D., of the University of California, Davis.
I asked Simonton this question regarding Andy Caffrey’s vow to light up on the Capitol’s steps if elected to California’s second congressional district. Articles in the press have called his marijuana-smoking manifesto “novel” and “innovative.”
These two words typically define creativity, so I was curious about how Caffrey’s campaign pledge might appear to creativity gurus. Simonton is a psychologist specializing in creativity, and is considered one of the nation’s renowned creativity experts. He has written more than 400 articles and over a dozen books on the subject.
Novelty and originality are the first characteristics to look for when defining creativity, but there are two other requirements, Simonton said.
A second rule is that a novel idea must also be useful or functional. And thirdly, it must be surprising or nonobvious.
Simonton said he didn’t know if Caffrey’s pledge is useful because he didn’t know if it will ultimately lead to more votes. There isn’t a clear way to measure votes based on this type of tactic.
But the one criteria that puts it out of the running for being genuinely creative is that it’s not surprising. The pledge to puff isn’t considered especially risky in this part of northern California, an area known for its marijuana growing and smoking. Caffrey’s district spans the region from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border.
Residents of Humboldt County, where Caffrey lives, actually became concerned after California legalized marijuana because of the resulting drop in prices for an otherwise black market.
Anna Hamilton of Shelter Cove, Calif., was quoted in High Times as saying: “We have to embrace marijuana tourism, marijuana products and services – and marijuana has to become part of the Humboldt County brand.”
So clearly, Caffrey, who is licensed to use medicinal marijuana and who has already smoked on the campaign trail, is doing the obvious within the context of this district and its constituents. Sometimes tactics such as these are often viewed as “cynically manipulative,” Simonton said.
I asked Simonton if there was a time in the last century when a politician successfully used a more authentic form of creativity. He pointed to former U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s usage of “fireside chats” to bring his voice electronically to every single household.
Roosevelt first used the so-called “chats” as New York’s Governor, addressing a radio audience to get his agenda passed in a Republican legislature. He then took the format to the presidency during the Great Depression.
Similarly, U.S. President Barak Obama used social media and the Internet in 2008 “when his opponent didn’t even use e-mail,” Simonton said. “This clearly gave him an edge.”
As a politician, you have to find out the new rules and exploit them. What makes it so challenging is that those rules in today’s environment change so rapidly.
In other words, being clever might get you some publicity in the short run, but if it’s not truly – or bravely – creative, your idea might simply go up in smoke.