06:18, May 30 203 0 theguardian.com

2018-05-30 06:18:36
Guardian Selects  Why admitting you're wrong should be the new right

Here’s a scenario that’s not easy to conjure: It’s inauguration day. Your new president is being sworn into office. Unlike their now disgraced (and, dare we speculate, incarcerated) predecessor, they’ve worked at various levels of government for years, steeped in the intrigue and conventions of Congress.

Yet for all their investment in the system, they’ve canvassed on the promise of change. Instead of blarney and bluster, they spent the campaign diagnosing a malignant political landscape that you have long believed to be broken. You haven’t really bought their 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”.

But then they step up to the lectern to deliver their inaugural address, and to the surprise of everyone present, it goes something like this:

“Good people of America: it is my duty, as your newly elected president, to state plainly that many of the policies pursued by this government in recent years have been immoral, stupidand wrong. For decades, the people representing you in these assemblies have allowed political expediency to get in the way of their moral judgement, and because of that, thousands of people have died in needless wars, millions of people have seen their standards of living diminish, and hundreds of our towns have entered an era of terminal decline. Politics demands tough choices, but the era of ass-covering and buck-passing has to end. In a just world, some of the men and women behind me would be on trial in The Hague.”

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

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“A whole lot of us go through life assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, about basically everything,” writes Kathryn Schulz in her 2010 book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, “about our political and intellectual convictions, our religious and moral beliefs, our assessment of other people, our memories, 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 omniscient.”

And there are few areas of life where our wrong-phobia is in greater evidence – or has more corrosive consequences – than politics. From the rogues and clowns populating our parliaments 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. Trump, 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. Listen to the silence from Trumpland every time their hero, the man who promised to reform America’s relations with Russia, appears to flirt with initiating a third world war.

An even more clear-cut instance can be found on my side of the Atlantic, in the country formerly known as Great Britain, where Brexit 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. Brexit has exposed a breathtaking array of contradictions and deluded self-justifications in the two years since Britain voted to leave the European Union. Yet current polling suggests that the vast majority of Brexit 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.

Even if, in 10 years’ time, Britain has devolved into the Stone Age – its roads turned to mud, its cities in ruins, its people reduced to a diet of dandelions and cannibalism – you can imagine the remaining die-hard Brexiters standing hunch-shouldered in rags around a garbage fire muttering: “We took our country back.”

In many respects, the obduracy with which political leaders and their acolytes cling to stupid opinions and policies in the face of changing context is an inevitable outgrowth of two-party politics. Even if an individual politician were willing to own up to an error, it behooves 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’s tempting to suggest that the uncaged narcissism of the 21st-century western condition is also a contributory factor. Raised in the era of liberal individualism, we are all of us 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.

Deny. Deflect. Double down. These have become the watchwords of the modern politician who prizes their legacy over the common good, even if self-preservation means harming the very constituency they have been mandated to represent.

“They play for high stakes – but never their own,” raged the Guardian columnist Marina Hyde in an article about British parliamentarians’ allergy to accountability. “It’s the sort of system-milking demonised in a benefits office in Grimsby but regarded as career progression in Westminster. It makes it appear there’s no glass ceiling in modern political life, just a reinforced lead floor. Once you’re in, you basically have to die to stop earning rewards.”

Let’s not kid ourselves, though. This species of craven politician could never have been allowed to flourish without the acquiescence of those who put them in power. Our political culture has become so perverted with jumbled priorities and selective amnesia that much of the electorate seems intent on punishing our leaders for trivial things while letting them off the hook for egregious ones.

Politics has always been a game, but there is something in the way the game is played today – always under the 24-hour glare, always with regard to “optics” – that has turned our politicians into automatons, like pamphlets made flesh, incapable of going off script.

We live in an age when a single viral image of a politician looking stupid while eating a bacon sandwich is more likely to damage a career than authorizing a drone strike on a foreign school. The result is a complete subordination of substance to style, as voters come to demand that performative facets – strength, certitude, infallibility – take precedence over moral ones like honesty and compassion.

Is there any way to break this pattern? Don’t hold your breath.

There can be little doubt that public appetite for a more honest brand of politics exists. Recent polling data from the marketing firm Edelman suggests that public trust in the US government, media and businesses has collapsed to crisis point.

The imaginary speech that opened this essay would have me and many others cheering from the rafters. To pluck a metaphor from the world of Antarctic exploration, I’m fed up with leaders like Capt Scott, who pushed on to the South Pole at the cost of his life and those of his men. I want someone like Ernest Shackleton, who, realizing his mission was doomed, turned back 97 miles short of his goal, ensuring his whole team’s survival.

But that isn’t what the collapse in trust has brought us. Far from ushering in an era of renewed integrity, public cynicism toward mainstream politics has opened the door for something more mendacious still. Figures like Trump and the people who led the Brexit movement achieved their coups by presenting themselves as refreshing truth-tellers. In reality, they have thrived by exploiting a paradoxical vulnerability, which is that the same trends that have eroded trust in the first place – bias, misinformation and growing partisanship – have also exacerbated our cognitive inflexibility and our capacity to ingest and cleave to lies.

The kind of furious, tribal politics we have today in America and Britain – and, indeed, many other countries in thrall to a two-party system – means that voters are defined as much (if not more) by their antipathies as by their convictions. Once politics becomes inextricably linked to prejudices, the stakes rise just as our political viewpoints calcify. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle.

It doesn’t take an extensive trawl through the decades to see that successive governments’ failures to backtrack on some of their headline policy disasters – the war on drugs and the war on terror, to name just two – have occurred in instances when the stakes seemed highest. The bigger the mission, the harder it is to hit reverse once the cogs are in motion.

In our current atmosphere, wherein political fealty comes to define people’s sense of who they are and what their country stands for, everything seems like a big deal, all the time. And as the stakes rise, the cognitive dissonance must rise with it, because to think, introspect and admit wrongdoing is to confess to an unconscionable, often murderous, culpability. The moral imperative to admit your mistakes and change course subsides beneath a fog of self-justification.

We’ve seen it all before.

When I was a kid, back in the days when people still rented VHS cassettes from Blockbuster Video, I watched a lot of Vietnam films: Deer Hunter, Born on the Fourth of July, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket – that great canon of senseless slaughter. Even as a youngster, watching those movies through a cloud of cannabis smoke, you couldn’t help but be struck by the futility they conveyed. That sense which would become so familiar in later years as the war on terror ground on, precipitating more horror than it resolved, that the soldiers had no idea what they were fighting for or even if they should be there at all.

But what I didn’t really get then was that there was a reason, one that was being safeguarded by older men sitting behind desks in Washington and Virginia, 9,000 miles from the fighting. That reason was America’s urge to save face.

We can infer as much from confidential memoranda leaked in the Pentagon papers and from White House telephone transcripts, which betrayed that the leaders knew, five years before the Saigon evacuation, that they were fighting an unwinnable war. “In Saigon, the tendency is to fight the war to victory,” Nixon told Kissinger in 1969. “But you and I know it won’t happen. It is impossible.”

In the years that followed, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, soldiers and civilians both, would evaporate in a hail of phosphoric fire. Thousands more US servicemen died. The most powerful country in the world was forsaking its soul to spare its leaders blushes.

Consider that precedent and you start to apprehend that those of us waiting for an honest Shackleton-like figure are likely to be waiting a long time.

Still, we can dream …

“We messed up,” the new president continues. The rows of dignitaries crowding the dais look ashen. Some are open-mouthed, shaking their heads.

This isn’t how the game is played!

“We messed up, and people suffered, and for my part, I’m sorry. I can only promise that this administration will strive to be better. Now this country turns a page. Here is what we need to do.”

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Henry Wismayer has written essays, features and assorted ramblings for over 70 publications, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Vice, Vox and Time. Find him on Twitter @henrywismayer.

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