Sunday, 26 October 2008

Oh, be reasonable

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (1903) "Maxims for Revolutionists"
Irish dramatist & socialist (1856 - 1950)

What's the best way to make change happen? GBS (as he once asked to me to call him) suggests unswerving commitment to principle. No compromise, no accommodation, no surrender. Don't stop pushing just because people make concessions - never rest till you have made the world fit you. You have to admit, it sounds good - strong, stark, principled, resolute. Frankly, however, it seems like a lot of work.

More to the point, unless you've actually got some slim grasp on at least one lever of something resembling power, it's a recipe for principled ineffectuality (qv Liberal Democrats). Consider this take on a campaign to license strip-clubs:

... for me the campaign simply doesn't go far enough... feminists should instead be campaigning to have these places shut down...It's a harder campaign to fight undoubtedly, but it's the right one nonetheless.

Now that's a strongly principled stand, against which merely getting stricter licensing looks pretty wishy-washy. Dammit, if you're against strip-clubs, how can you even contemplate arguing for a position which ultimately leaves them in business? For one good (and acknowledged) reason: this campaign has a good chance of working - banning them is a non-starter. Cath Elliott can rant about the nimbyism and betrayal inherent in Object's compromise approach, but they are actually going to make a difference in the world and she is not.

On the other hand, consider our new atheist buses. "There is probably no God: now stop worrying and enjoy your life." Here's a compromise: the original wording, according to this interview with Richard Dawkins, was "There is almost certainly no God". But it was felt that this would "infuriate believers, and put off potentially sympathetic agnostics". "Infuriate believers"? Does the Meat and Livestock Commision worry how to placate the vegetarian community? Are army recruitment ads tailored to avoid upsetting pacifists? The whole point of the advert is to be a bold and refreshing statement of the unorthodox: compromise does not become it. (The second half of the slogan is equally inane: all that apparently follows from this paradigm-shattering probability is the opportunity to have a bit of a laugh. You had your chance to make your case, Dawkins, and you blew it.)

So is compromise a good thing? When it comes to laying out your case, no. You've got to let people know what you stand for. When it comes to getting things done, if you have to work with people who (shock horror) have different perspectives than yours then it's better to be the Sun than the North Wind.

No comments: