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.