Admitting you’re wrong

Bill by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

There is little that contends with the chore of admitting you’re wrong.  Such an oily exercise to be sure!  So thoroughly unbecoming!

Or is it?  We’re all familiar with the fable of the wolf who, when clearly overpowered by his adversary, humbly resigned himself to his fate and threw up his head, exposing his neck to the jaws of the other.  Of course, the dominant party did the respectable thing and withdrew from the contest.  The fight was over in an instant.

This quaint little tale however deserves some analysis.  Its apparent simplicity is upon scrutiny astonishingly complex. Foremost is the preliminary matter of risk assessment.  Even in the heat of an unbalanced argument, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he who currently has the upper hand will win in the end; and if one’s life – or something approaching its significance – is at stake, it may well be worth the effort to save it.  When it comes to being right about something, there can be a lot on the table.  Quite apart from the embarrassment of error (more especially if one has taken a strong position from the outset), there may be nasty economic repercussions, effectively exacting a stinging financial penitence.  So the first question to ask is whether one should on the balance simply capitulate and remove all doubt about the debate?  Do we further take the chance that things will work themselves out on the heels of our sheepish admission?  While this consternation appears to rely at least in part upon the bona fides of the other party, I put it to you that that is a red herring.  In this narrow context the decision to forfeit the battle is founded not upon the calculation of the other’s generosity but rather upon our own desire to sleep at night without a pack upon our back (assuming for the sake of argument that one has a conscience).  The issue orbits in the heady atmosphere of logic and spiritual purity.

To this point the struggle whether to own defeat turns largely upon the truth of the matter.  It is a purely factual competition.  If life were as clinical as arithmetic, then no doubt the verdict to accept the correct answer would be all there is to the matter.  However we all know life is not so sanitized and is clouded by more than annoying facts.  Even imbuing our human behaviour with the superior quality of social grace we must nonetheless weigh the advantage of trusting to good manners. There remains a convincing rival to propriety: politics. Politics is a dirty word, not for the faint of heart and to be perfectly blunt it is not for those who would allow themselves to become mired in societal sweetness to the prejudice of personal advancement.  Granted there is the distant possibility of capitalizing upon honour and virtue to put some psychological distance between us and our adversaries, hopefully endowing us with an air of uprightness sufficient to excuse or camouflage at least our blunder of detail.  Not everyone however looks upon submission as an attribute; and even if they did, there is the continuing threat that the inaccuracy of our initial proposition may yet dwarf its contrition.

So what we’re left with is an admission of an error which we seek to compensate by social nicety.  Not exactly a winning arrangement nor is it guaranteed to expiate one’s guilt.  No, something further is required to seal the transaction.

You may have discerned in this latest observation a hint of subterfuge in what might appear to be a project designed merely to clarify an embarrassing mistake with a degree of dignity.  And indeed you would be correct about the artifice. The decision to relinquish one’s fortifications, to expose one’s self to the possible brutality of the opposing side, is not a posture to be lightly undertaken.  More likely the object of the gambit is neither the admission of fact nor the display of etiquette; rather the purpose is to obfuscate, to muddy the waters sufficiently to distract the adherents from their original course.  Crawling in the face of potential defeat (as humiliating as it may seem) is a ploy, a ruse, the tactic of a cunning soul to trounce the enemy by other than merit.  From the very jaws of the beast the prize is wrestled, and it is ultimately the once down-trodden loser who parades himself as victor, crowned with the laurels of scrupulousness and decorum.  The combat is won by initial compromise and subsequent diversion, veritable anaesthetics to the throbbing disturbance.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn of such bald-faced design. What after all was the prior entitlement of either party to the presumption of stainless gentility and selflessness?  And before you become too uppity about the coarseness of behaviour, I suggest you first consider the depth of breeding.  Refinement, while seeking generally to distance itself from commonness, isn’t merely about rolling over and taking it in the neck.  There is more than a swath of reason in that field of dreams we regularly dismiss as polite social conduct.  It is a decided disfavour to the bloodline of one’s ancestors to saddle them with shallow politesse and not give them the benefit of some intellectual dimension, all the more worthy if its goal is accomplished by ingenuity without the vulgarity of brute force or undeniable deceit.  In the end, by thrust and parry the bout is resolved to the mutual satisfaction of the parties.

A wider view of the subject might also be taken with some appreciable advantage.  How shallow life would be if it were only a matter of winning at every turn!  Surely none of us proposes to be right either always or without contradiction.  Admitting you’re wrong is little more than an acceptance of being part of the herd.  You’re in good company!  In spite of the inclination to disguise it, being wrong is after all as natural as anything else in life.  What utterly confounds the issue is the denial of it.  You may as well have some fun with it if you’re going to eat crow!