Progress and the unreasonable man

George Bernard Shaw, despite some naive political and social beliefs, was unarguably gifted with not a small amount of wit and insight. In his Maxims for Revolutionaries we see both, in a list from which collective cultural memory has absorbed more than a few sayings. Some of them were tongue in cheek, others not much more than mere pith. But one of them that seems particularly suited for the said revolutionaries in his title was

“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.”

Witty, and it’s more than a pithy contraposition because it concludes with an undeniable element of truth. To improve the conditions of things, or just to stop a decline in them, it’s usually by definition necessary to challenge a mainstream perception of normality. And to say that the status quo is unreasonable, well that in itself is unreasonable.

It’s not hard to come up with examples of people who fit the model of the “unreasonable man”. They’re the sort you often say or heard said of “I don’t agree with them [on this/on much/at all], but you have to admit that they’re at least consistent.” What examples you can think of will depend on your own observations and principles. For me two contemporary ones that instantly come to mind are campaigner Richard Stallman, and US Congressmen Ron Paul. Stallman is a left-wing activist, atheist, programmer extraordinaire, and unfatiguable advocate for Free software (the capital “F” is used as a means of distinguishing “Free as in Freedom” from “Free as in beer”) and the need for copyright and patent reform. Ron Paul is a right-wing, small government, constitutional libertarian. I agree and disagree with both of them on multiple issues (hopefully on the right ones), but one of the things I do admire them both for is their consistency. They know their principles, and they are consistent to a fault in applying them. And it’s cost them both.

Stallman is considered by many even in the wider Open Source movement (distinct from Stallman’s Free Software movement for ideological reasons I won’t go into) to be too much of a radical zealot, an uncompromising man who may have been useful once, but has since been overtaken by the more pragmatic approach of Linus Torvalds (creator of Linux), who admits to liking Microsoft Powerpoint and for several years used a closed-source tool called BitKeepr to manage development of Linux (a decision that erstwhile pragmatic, later turned into a problem that justified the concerns of people like Stallman).

Paul has forever been stuck on the periphery of US politics. A candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, he became noted for the massive grassroots and internet-coordinated campaign that grew up to support him. It was powered by voters formerly driven to apathy by normal political platitudes and compromise, who had found much to admire in Paul’s consistency and blunt honesty. Part of his consistency (and it is remarkable, you can compare video and writings from him 20 years ago and now without finding a hint of a flip-flop). His principles are simple to apply to his work: he holds that the US Constitution and the associated philosophies of the Founding Fathers is worth pursuing as a way to run the US. So he actually votes against things on the basis that he regards them as unconstitutional. Which is why he has often been the only nay-voter in the Republican party on many issues. And that’s cost him. Despite the undeniably large grassroots campaign (they independently organised enough money to fund a blimp advertising him), his years of refusing to play political ball resulted in him essentially being cut out of the whole campaign trail, and treated by party-friendly media as an oddity worthy of a few minutes of airtime per hour given to those with the official party blessings.

I’m not referring to irrational zealots. I mean those people who have a deep understanding and thought out their principles, who know what it is they believe and have thought through the gritty details of how that then applies to their lives.

It can be depressing seeing how men like these can be dismissed sometimes solely on the basis that they are so uncompromising on their principles, or when they refuse to bend them for a greater political correctness. Certainly, I found it rather sad watching Giuliani (or was it Romney? It’s certainly possible for me to be conflating more than one of the many such incidents in the TV debates) blatantly snigger at Paul during a debate when he dared to suggest that the 9/11 attacks may have been caused by US activity in the Middle East, that things may be slightly more complicated than “they hate us for our freedoms”.

Which is why it’s refreshing to consider that there are examples of unreasonable men and women who got their way, and actually did improve things for many people in a real way.

From history I think of abolitionists William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson; the maverick priest Martin Luther who stood up to a corrupt church hierarchy and sparked the Reformation; of Martin Luther King; of Kate Sheppard who led the campaign for womens’ suffrage in New Zealand (subsequently being the first country in the world to grant it, and thus influencing similar campaigns to follow elsewhere). They all shared a common set of principles in Christianity, which is interesting if you consider that the theology of orthodox Christianity is all about reshaping the believer into Christ’s image. You see, I think Shaw has it slightly wrong, or he’s at least missing a step. The unreasonable men and women who make things for the better happen? They don’t just bend the world to the shape of themselves. They first bend themselves to the shape of something better than themselves. How else can you improve the world when you’re part of it already?

If you find you have to be inconsistent in applying your principles in order to be doing “the best thing”, then you need to find some new ones, because your current ones are broken. To otherwise keep entertaining them is dishonest. And if you’re not sure that you have any principles, then how can you hope to be unreasonable for the right reasons?

One response to “Progress and the unreasonable man

  1. Thanks, I enjoyed reading that – very thought provoking. If we ourselves are part of the problem with this world, we certainly need to consider what else might hold the solution.

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