In praise of indecisiveness

A university professor once wrote a clever, pithy comment on one of my exam questions that I will never forget. He said "there is a fine line between exploring alternatives and waffling to the point that you yield no useful advice.

A university professor once wrote a clever, pithy comment on one of my exam questions that I will never forget. He said “there is a fine line between exploring alternatives and waffling to the point that you yield no useful advice. I believe you have crossed it.”

I don’t recall the specific question but he was probably right.

In the year and half that I have spent writing this column one of the biggest challenges has been picking a side on issues on which I have genuine doubt. Judging by many of the online comments, readers seem to often assume that I am firmly convinced of the correctness of each and every one of my opinions, but on some of them I’m filled with nagging doubts. I like to believe that I usually recognize that there are counter-arguments (of varying strength) to many of the things I say, and I occasionally change my mind on the basis of new information.

The world is so full of grey, but we humans like to see it in black and white.

Sometimes that is necessary. Decisiveness is often important in life. When we’re faced with difficult choices a decision ultimately has to be made, and sometimes that decision needs to be made quickly. In many cases prolonging the decision making process by hemming and hawing can be detrimental.

A military commander, for example, faced with a number of a “bad” options has to choose one of them. And he has to do so fast or the troops under his command could be overrun and die. A person in such a position does not have the luxury of endlessly weighing options, exploring alternatives or deferring to others.

As in all other areas, politicians need to be decisive as well. This is particularly true in times of crisis, but it is true at all times. Despite the complexity of various issues, sometimes what we really need it to pick a direction and move forward.

Having said that, I think our society’s elevation of decisiveness to the level of virtue, particularly in the political realm, has been misguided. We as voters expect too much clarity from our politicians, and I think that is a mistake. Thoughtful, contemplative politicians are seen as wishy washy, and politicians who adjust their policies based on new information are flip-floppers. We throw around the expression “broken promises” far too liberally.

Perhaps I only speak for myself, but I’d prefer that politicians show their thought processes, acknowledge their own doubts, recognize uncertainty, and be willing to face a course change head on.

In the last federal election two of the parties promised to run balanced budgets. Since then oil prices have collapsed further, and stock markets have fallen. Rosy predictions about government revenues have not panned out. In an alternate universe where the Conservatives or NDP had won would we have held it against them when they inevitably had adjusted their plans accordingly? I’m sure we would have.

Surely some readers at this point are thinking, “Well maybe politicians shouldn’t make promises they can’t keep.” And there is some truth to that. Politicians do tend to promise more than they can deliver, and that tendency should be discouraged. As one example, I found Tom Mulcair’s promise of balanced budgets despite a number of expensive promises he made during the last campaign hard to swallow, particularly in light of the economic trajectory we were on at the time.

But we as voters contribute to that tendency as well. Politicians who hedge on their promises by attaching qualifiers like “if we can afford it” or making noncommittal statements like “we will explore this or that issue” are seen as slippery. How many of us would have accepted a promise by our politicians that they will “try” to balance the budget “if economic circumstances allow, and if it can be done without compromising other important priorities?”

If we want politicians to give us an idea of what they intend to do but at the same time want them to be realistic about what they can accomplish we have to accept a certain level of uncertainty in their pronouncements.

Other readers are probably thinking “they aren’t reacting to new information. They’re flapping in the political wind whichever direction public opinion is blowing.” Again, to be sure, such a crass form of “flip flopping” certainly does exist. But part of the skill we need to develop as voters is knowing when a politician is being democratically responsive and when they are simply trying to curry favour with the voters.

As on that university exam, I appreciate that in this column probably hasn’t “yielded” much in the way of “useful advice.” What I am trying to say is that we should be more appreciative of politicians who see the shades of grey that exist in the world, who are willing to admit when they were wrong, and who face necessary course corrections head on. That type of culture shift in our politics would go a long way.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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