Friday, August 08, 2014

A horror of being wrong

From Wikipedia

Some people, and I think I’m one of them, have a problem with being wrong. It manifests itself as a certain lack of robustness when it comes to attacking almost any social malaise or political stupidity. Almost always there are caveats. Almost always arguments are less robust than they could be. Note the almost.

I’ve been reading reams of G K Chesterton lately, mainly because I think he illustrates the problem very well. He understood the art of argument, the need to ignore the inevitable weakness of any standpoint and play to its strengths. The need to have a robust standpoint in the first place. Take these three quotes as an example.

Surely, when all is said, the ultimate objection to the English public school is its utterly blatant and indecent disregard of the duty of telling the truth.

But no English school-boy is ever taught to tell the truth, for the very simple reason that he is never taught to desire the truth. From the very first he is taught to be totally careless about whether a fact is a fact; he is taught to care only whether the fact can be used on his “side” when he is engaged in “playing the game.”

England is the country of the Party System, and it has always been chiefly run by public-school men. Is there anyone out of Hanwell who will maintain that the Party System, whatever its conveniences or inconveniences, could have been created by people particularly fond of truth?
G K Chesterton - What's Wrong with the World (1910)

I don't find it easy to write in this robust manner because what Chesterton says isn’t true - there are glaring holes. To begin with, Chesterton himself attended a public school - St Paul's School. So where does that leave his own attitude to truth?

On the other hand, a disproportionate number of our political elite slither out of public schools and adapt to a culture of routine lying like ducks to water. In other words there is at least some connection between habitual lying, carelessness with facts and public schools.

The trouble is, I would not find it easy to ignore the caveats as Chesterton so blithely and persuasively does. The cynic in me says that is because Chesterton is doing exactly that of which he accuses the political classes. Yet it works. The point is made and it lingers - as it is supposed to linger.

But all sorts of things go through our heads, and some seem to linger, and some don’t.


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Sackerson said...

I don't think it's particularly public-school, or even British. The internet is full of evidence that people want to win arguments, by fair means or foul. Dr Johnson, although keen to formulate truth, was also extremely combative in discussion - I remember one passage in Boswell when, having lost a point, Dr J was puffing like a volcano until he could come in with some riposte on a different point that his opponent subsequently made:

PERCY. ‘Pennant does not describe well; a carrier who goes along the side of Loch-lomond would describe it better.’ JOHNSON. ‘I think he describes very well.’ PERCY. ‘I travelled after him.’ JOHNSON. ‘And I travelled after him.’ PERCY. ‘But, my good friend, you are short-sighted, and do not see so well as I do.’ I wondered at Dr. Percy’s venturing thus. Dr. Johnson said nothing at the time; but inflammable particles were collecting for a cloud to burst. In a little while Dr. Percy said something more in disparagement of Pennant. JOHNSON. (pointedly,) ‘This is the resentment of a narrow mind, because he did not find every thing in Northumberland.’ PERCY. (feeling the stroke,) ‘Sir, you may be as rude as you please.’ JOHNSON. ‘Hold, Sir! Don’t talk of rudeness; remember, Sir, you told me (puffing hard with passion struggling for a vent,) I was shortsighted. We have done with civility. We are to be as rude as we please.’ PERCY. ‘Upon my honour, Sir, I did not mean to be uncivil.’ JOHNSON. ‘I cannot say so, Sir; for I DID mean to be uncivil, thinking YOU had been uncivil.’ Dr. Percy rose, ran up to him, and taking him by the hand, assured him affectionately that his meaning had been misunderstood; upon which a reconciliation instantly took place. JOHNSON. ‘My dear Sir, I am willing you shall HANG Pennant.’

He just *had* to win.

A K Haart said...

Sackers - I agree. As I recall, Johnson once admitted that he could just as easily have taken the other side in one particular argument.

Chesterton could have said that public schools have no great record for instilling truth, but that would have made his argument far less forceful and less likely to attract attention.

Paddington said...

No wonder I didn't fit in most of the time. I usually said, and still say, things which are factual. The usual responses in discussions is that my earnest opponent leaves.