The courage to admit you’re wrong

Our politicians’ urge to save face at all costs is leading to a culture of obstinacy, with possible undesired consequences.

It is no exaggeration to say that humans are almost universally terrible at admitting when they are wrong.

We are all narcissists now, hell-bent on worldly admiration and reward. And those of us who become politicians are all too often those who want their names carved in stone. Our politicians’ urge to save face at all costs is leading to a culture of obstinacy, with possible undesired consequences.

Here’s a scenario that’s not easy to conjure: It’s inauguration day. Your new prime minister is being sworn into office. Unlike his now disgraced predecessor, he has worked at various levels of government for years and is steeped in the intrigue and conventions of the Labour Movement. Yet, for all his investment in the system, he has canvassed on the promise of change. Instead of blarney and bluster, he spent the campaign diagnosing a malignant political landscape that you have long believed to be broken. You haven’t really bought his Damascene conversion. How could you? Politics, to pull an evergreen quote from Orwell, has always been “a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia”.

A whole lot of us go through life assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, about basically everything: about our political and intellectual convictions, our religious and moral beliefs, our assessment of other people, our memories, and our grasp of facts. As absurd as it sounds when we stop to think about it, our steady state seems to be one of unconsciously assuming that we are very close to being omniscient.

Wrong-phobia

There are few areas of life where our wrong-phobia is more evident or has more corrosive consequences than politics. From the rogues and clowns populating our parliament to the voters on the streets, huge numbers of us refuse to adjust our political loyalties, even as the shifting context demonstrates we were wrong. Even more of us struggle to admit we’re wrong, even when we know we are.

Contemporary examples could hardly be more ubiquitous. Bernard Grech, predictably, appears to be a Grand Wizard of both tendencies, though whether this is intentional is anyone’s guess. Whenever he contradicts himself, he never does so with the qualification that the initial pronouncement was wrong, preferring instead to imply that it’s all part of some master plan or that accusations of inconsistency are altogether false. It’s a dissemblance that many of his supporters seem all too happy to imitate.

An even more clear-cut instance can be found on the government’s side, where an economic model based on the importation of foreign labour is proving to be the ultimate test case of a country digging a hole, starting to apprehend how dank it is down there, yet stubbornly continuing to dig. That economic model has exposed a breathtaking array of contradictions and deluded self-justifications in the two years since it was promoted. Yet, current polling suggests that the vast majority of Labourite voters remain largely behind the project, even as the economic arguments of those who led them there come apart by the day. This is cognitive dissonance elevated to a different plane, near-metaphysical in its combination of hands-in-ears la-la-la-ing and blind faith.

Hard to say “I’m sorry”

In many respects, the obduracy with which political leaders and their acolytes cling to stupid opinions and policies in the face of changing contexts is an inevitable outgrowth of two-party politics. Why is it so hard for a politician to say, “Sorry, I was wrong”? After all, it would be a miracle if our elected leaders got everything right. They’re regular folks who get placed in positions of significant responsibility and complexity.

Every year, our national budget covers a breathtaking variety of topics — health, education, community services, roads, and justice — to name only the largest. Who would expect that every single decision would be perfect?

Of course, politicians make mistakes. The real test of their character is not whether they make mistakes, but what they do about them when they do. Unfortunately, the political culture reinforces an attitude of “never apologise, never explain”. Yet in politics, perhaps, it’s normal. Not only is the prime minister held accountable for the error, but he is also held accountable for having appointed an error-prone minister in the first place. This is why no prime minister likes admitting mistakes.

Unfortunately, the fabric of ministerial responsibility is weakening. It’s all linked to the unwillingness of our political masters to show the slightest weakness. If a mistake occurs these days and it hits the news, ministers scramble to point the finger. When politicians won’t admit a mistake, the fix can get distorted in order to let them save face. Even if individual politicians were willing to own up to an error, it behoves them to constantly wrangle with the tension between what is best for the country and what is best to help their party attain or hold on to power.

It could all be fixed so quickly and easily if, for example, the tourism minister were to say, “We think our plan and our Budget are pretty good, but we got this detail wrong. We’re going to leave the film rebates alone until we have a better handle on them.”

Instead of doing the right thing, the government does whatever makes the politician look best. Image rules. This tendency is especially true when it comes to the prime minister. In modern politics, the leader’s image is critically important. A leader cannot admit doubt, uncertainty, or error. Until you’ve stood in the political spotlight, you can’t understand the glare. When you’re on stage, it feels humiliating to admit a mistake. It also feels like an admission of weakness.

It doesn’t help that the Opposition, the media, and the public jump all over any admission of error. The politician is accused of flip-flopping, incompetence, or spinelessness. The reality is that someone can change their mind or correct an error without being guilty of any of these things. But the accusations still fly.

So, maybe, some of this unhealthy culture is our own doing and our responsibility, too.

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