'A Little Self-Doubt is a Good Thing' / Clementine Girard-Foley
First published in The Age Australia and The Sydney Morning Herald, all rights reserved.
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We live in a world that seems to value the opinionated and the rigid belief in our own correctness, and while post-truth rhetoric does require strong opposition to incomplete facts and the rebuttal of euphemistic language, there still seems to be an important spot left for self-doubt to carve out its usefulness.
Traditionally, self-doubt is portrayed as an admission of self-consciousness, of ignorance, of not being the alpha conversationalist. We criticise others for backtracking on what they'd previously said, for having a hesitant disposition, for being afraid to say what they think without punch or charisma. Newspaper headlines are titled on the daily to rebuke public figures for being "too soft", "too weak", "too nice".
Job interviews seem biased towards the charming and confident extrovert, every second student's go-to tactic is I'll just bullshit my way through this, and TV shows forever remind us that the shy kid is the one that gets bullied such that timidity and weakness have become these weird conjoined twins in our minds. What all of this does is implicitly plant the idea that saying something with conviction is the saving grace of persuasion.
Restricting the nature of the public debate is a fear constantly brought up by libertarians, deploring the attack on expressive rights by the strangling hands of the politically correct, free speech-murdering Left. While this claim is something I believe to be overstated and warped by other kinds of political motivations, it does make the point that we might be working against our own interests by placing strict expectations on what is the appropriate way of voicing a belief.
The kind of "strong opinions" we commonly expect of political leaders has resulted in demagogues and extremists (by nature, ideological fanatics) being given a megaphone that they can brandish, exulting the privilege of being loud and brash over other more measured and ultimately less successful approaches. Looking at our Parliament's question time, which I'd easily compare to Lord of the Flies except that every member is a Piggy in their own right, it precisely seems to abide by the rules of domination instead of the Socratic kind of dialogue philosophy so highly values in the art of debate.
This brings in the importance of self-doubt, that is, a degree of openness to having our opinion criticised because we are not so arrogant in steadfastly believing we are right. That kind of openness frees us from the obligation to defend our intellectual standing as a matter of pride once having vocalised our thoughts. It seems a little incoherent that our approach to discussion would not resemble the falsification principle so cherished in scientific practice that aims for theory to continuously be disproven, rather than self-confirmed, in order to demonstrate its validity.
In the same way, the ability to be self-critical means that we avoid the dialogic dead-ends part of wanting to confirm our personal sense of satisfaction in being ‘right' and, ultimately, learn more about what is the best thing to do or to believe through two-sided conversations grounded in humility, instead of scorn.
Rather ironically, maybe I am too caught up on wanting to prove myself as right by ranting on about this social phenomenon. Still, I'd suggest you keep an eye out next time you're engaging in "serious" talk at the dinner table, are watching the news or are sitting in on a meeting. Too often do considered conversations stray towards the game of ad hominem attacks and the vilification of an opponent's character in order to avoid coming to terms with the fact that we might be – to the shame of our "woke" ego – mistaken. This kind of tiptoeing around the label of being wrong is a social stigma that needs to be changed, and the solution can be traced right back to the way in which classroom discussions take place in school, right through to university, and perhaps even to ideas of masculine assertiveness.
Conversation is what keeps things going, on a societal and interpersonal level. But too often it falls prey to the association between changing our mind and being a lazy and or misguided thinker. It's an obvious reality that without self-doubt we would not have achieved the same kind of research successes and academic achievements that generated many of the benefits we enjoy today. What is necessary is that we change our attitudes towards self-doubt and celebrate it as a tool for improving, not disproving, our opinion.
Cover image: Campbell Mowat