The need to be right
February 16, 2009
Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689-1755), better known simply as Montesquieu, wrote: “I believe that the thing above all which ruined Pompey was the shame he felt to think that in having elevated Caesar the way he did, he had lacked foresight. He accustomed himself to the idea as late as possible; he neglected his defence in order not to avow that he had put himself in danger; he maintained to the Senate that Caesar would never dare to make war; and because he had said it so often, he went on saying it always.” (My italics).
The French philosopher was talking about the Roman Empire, but the same could be applied to, say, Stalin regarding his continuing to purge his supposed enemies long after it was strictly necessary, if it ever was; or to Hitler, who was admittedly mad by then anyway, but carried on sending in ever greener troops into evidently lost battles; or to the Nazi extermination camp guards, who went on torturing and gassing their victims long after the end of World War II had been announced. It might also be applied, then, to just about anything that goes on in Iraq or Afghanistan, and certainly to Guantánamo. If you say it often enough, it becomes automatic and you dare not stop. Hence the need to be right.
What is it about human nature that makes us need to be right? Even in the pettiest of arguments we so often sound like children: “No, it isn’t!” “Yes, it is!” Does repetition become a ‘habit’ then? Does the need to be right become that, too?
We know that the perpetuation of a lie can easily turn it into a ‘reality’, at least in the minds of those who hear it and often in the minds of those who tell it. It is difficult, sometimes, to separate a truth from a lie in our own minds; it is even more difficult to do so in the public mind. Propagandists and advertising agencies know this all too well.
I’m veering off target somewhat but if the above is true, then our own need to be right, when subjected to sufficient repetition, automatically dismisses reason. A matter of not seeing the forest for the trees. Or a matter of false pride: I daren’t back down now, even if I am wrong.
Where does the need to be right lead us? Read the papers: corruption at all levels of society (as I write, the US has just ‘uncovered’ a massive fraud with payments for war material and humanitarian supplies in Iraq that is apparently larger even than the Madoff financial scandal – in itself a good example of the perpetuation of a lie); politicians who refuse to resign even when they’ve been found guilty in court (La Línea’s Mayor says he was not sentenced to resign, while the corruption scandals involving the PP in Madrid have elicited the oft-repeated ‘witch hunt’ remark from their leader Rajoy); and so on and on ad nauseam.
I’m right, of course.
(c) Alexander Bewick 2009