Our Incapacity to Admit Failure

Afghan children, from pxhere, CC0

Recently, the rather dim-witted right-wing leader of Canada’s Conservative party, Pierre Poilievre, whose elected representatives have been hobnobbing with the German neo-Fascist AfD party, announced a bid to overturn Canada’s new, tepid, right-to-die law. Sufferers of debilitating, excruciating, lifelong depression, he insisted, have no right to end their own lives. They should have to suffer until and unless they “get better”.

He wants the medical assistance in dying (MAID) law reversed to the extent it goes even one inch beyond patients with immediate, excruciating, advanced, terminal, physical diseases. That means, for example, that patients with early stage dementia cannot pre-authorize doctors to end their lives when their dementia later becomes horrific, because by then they are ‘mentally ill’ and hence ineligible for MAID. “There is always hope for someone to regain their health”, one Conservative senator asserted, calling for the law to be overturned.

I have been trying for 50 years to understand why right-wingers who don’t much like the idea of the government being involved in anything, seem so willing to interfere zealously with citizens’ decisions over their own bodies.

As usual, I start from the assumption that we’re all doing our best and we’ve all been biologically and culturally conditioned to believe and do what we do, rather than that those beliefs and actions are subject to our free will and control. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt.

When I looked at the anti-MAID advocates’ statements, I discovered the advocates mostly seem to fall into two camps: religious people who believe ending one’s life mercifully is against their god(s)’ will and hence immoral and/or evil; and shrinks (and a few other doctors) who believe that those suffering haven’t fully availed themselves of less drastic psychological and medical measures to deal with that suffering.

What’s going on here?, I wondered. And then it hit me: These are the people most likely to feel that MAID represents an admission of failure. The failure of religious fundamentalists to convince most citizens of the validity of their fervent moral beliefs, and the failure of shrinks (and doctors) to actually heal people suffering from chronic and excruciating mental (and physical) illness.

Why are we so afraid, and so unwilling, to admit failure, no matter what the cost to our society and our world? Part of it, I think, is shame. We hate to admit our incompetence, our inability to create a better world for ourselves and future generations. Our helplessness. Our gullibility. Seeing the world we believed in, falling apart, not working as it was supposed to. So of course we look for someone or something to shift the blame for that failure to. A lack of courage or perseverance. Laziness. Incompetence. Corruption. And those old conservative standbys, evil and insanity.

Part of our incapacity to admit failure also, I think, stems from fear — if I admit this was a failure, what else might I have to admit to being a failure? At what point is my worldview so shattered by acknowledging this failure that I am cast adrift, with no anchor to hold on to anymore? If I admit that psychiatry and meditation and 12-step programs won’t usually actually help with my mental illness or addiction, then what? If I admit to the abject failure of the 20-year-long staggeringly expensive US/NATO military adventure in Afghanistan, what might I have to admit about the failure of the west’s entire foreign policy and its judgement and treatment of the rest of the world’s people?

And I think there’s a second type of fear that underlies our incapacity to admit failure — the fear of the consequences of that failure. So, when it comes to MAID, will it lead to people just wanting to die because they’re tired of living, and want to be allowed to end their lives for no other reason? How awful would that be, rubbing our faces in our failure! And if we admit to the abject failure of most of our well-intentioned but astronomically-expensive and dysfunctional health systems to prevent and treat diseases to extend our healthy lives, then what are we going to do as the population ages and needs exponentially more services from them?

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that much, perhaps most of humans’ hate- and anger-fuelled behaviours and actions represent, at root, a refusal to admit failure.

I would say that the anti-abortion movement, for example, cannot bear to admit to the failure of of our political, social and economic systems to eliminate the enormous, never-ending, pressing need for abortions. And they refuse to admit to their failure to persuade their fellow citizens of the virtue of their absolutist moral views.

Nostalgia-fuelled admonitions to ‘MAGA’, I suggest, reflect a refusal to admit to past failures and a stubborn determination to repeat them. Likewise, the current warmongering of Cold War II zealots on both sides reflect a refusal to admit to the utter failures of both the Soviet bloc and the NATO bloc, neither of which has ever served any useful purpose to its members.

Our fear and loathing of those struggling with addiction, and of the unhoused, and of the staggering number of incarcerated people locked away uselessly for a lifetime, reflect, I believe, a refusal to admit to the complete failure of our programs, processes and systems to properly provide effective and urgently-needed care and treatment to those unable to care for themselves.

The frenzy of the west’s top-caste1-led fury and disinformation aimed at Russia and China likewise belies, I think, an admission of failure that unipolar global control of the planet and its resources by ‘exceptional’ leaders in the US and its vassal states (in the collective interest of the planet, of course) is neither practicable nor wanted in most of the world, and that seventy years of relentless effort and propaganda to that end have simply not worked.

And they represent an admission of failure that untrammelled capitalism and massive US military/CIA adventurism are not only not the ultimate routes to “freedom and democracy for all”, but rather disastrously-flawed, unworkable and ecologically disastrous experiments that we would best end quickly.

But we have nothing to replace these failures with, and, for most, our livelihoods depend directly on these failed systems’ continuance. Small wonder, then, that the war belligerents, and the market fundamentalists and their adherents are doubling down, unwilling to admit to their failure and are instead encouraging us to stay the course and repeat our mistakes.

Watching the US Democrats cowed into condemning socialism as inherently “authoritarian” and “brutal” was heartbreaking. But like Republicans, they are unwilling to admit to the utter failure of America’s stalwart flirtation with extreme capitalism. Especially not to their bewildered constituents!

Likewise, climate and ecological collapse deniers are unwilling to admit to the catastrophic failure of the much-vaunted systems that have precipitated this collapse (remember “the green revolution”?), or to admit to the failure of magical ‘green’ solutions (like carbon capture) promised by starry-eyed technophile simpletons who understand nothing of the workings of complex systems.

I am always surprised at how much hot air as been expelled over the question of whether our accelerating ecological collapse was or is ‘human-caused’. If our ecological systems are crumbling and presenting us with an existential crisis, who the fuck cares who or what caused it? But now I see — it’s all about the admission of failure. It’s OK if we have to deal with crises, but don’t you dare suggest it was our own fault, a collective human failure. Shame on you!

And so it goes. Rather than admit to our abject failure to prevent tens of millions of deaths from a pandemic that had been predicted for decades and which we had lots of advance notice about, we would prefer to blame it all on government bungling or lab leak conspiracies or, depending on your point of view, on anti-vaxxers and human stupidity in general. Not our fault though! Someone else’s failure!

Take away the blame game, and you take away the shame. It’s no one’s fault, no one is to blame, and there’s nothing for anyone to be ashamed of. We are all doing our best. We are just another struggling species, eight billion mildly deranged monkeys, and certainly not the crown of creation. We can only do what we’ve been biologically and culturally conditioned to do, given the ever-changing circumstances of each moment.

But even if we move past the shame, we may still be incapable of admitting failure, because of fear of what other failures it might cause us to have to admit, or fear of the failure’s consequences. The fear of everything being out of our control (and out of the gods’ control) may be just too much to bear.

When I read about the decision of the Canadian government to freeze and seize the assets of Russian citizens held in Canadian banks at home and abroad, that fear arose for me in spades. I remember as a youth when my mail from ‘hostile’ countries was opened and inspected by the Canadian security authorities (I was an avid shortwave radio listener and got mail from all over the world.) I remember being photographed by a plainclothes RCMP officer in the early 1960s as I was going into the Socialist Book Store on Main Street in Winnipeg. I’ve learned what a hostile government can do to citizens if it fails to function in those citizens’ collective interest. So I wrote, in response to the CBC article on the government seizure (the CBC immediately censored and removed my comment):

We didn’t like the First Nations people so we stole their property. We didn’t like Canadians who came from countries we fought in WW2, so we stole their property and put them in camps. We didn’t like the Taliban so we sat idle as the US stole billions of dollars from Afghan bank accounts, some of it humanitarian aid funds desperately needed by their starving citizens, and gave it out to Americans. Now because we don’t like Russia we’ve legalized the theft of property from Russian citizens. Wonder what will happen if the government decides it doesn’t like us?

As I watch the steady advance of neofascism all over the planet in these troubled times, I am still not quite ready to admit to the failure of democracy, especially in Canada and the angry country to our south. The closer I get to acknowledging that failure, the more fearful I get. It’s not admitting that failure I’m afraid of; it’s the consequences of that failure that terrify me. I know people who have suffered atrocities at the hands of fascists, and whose families have been tortured or ‘disappeared’. You can’t blame anyone for refusing to admit that our political and economic systems are failing so quickly and so completely that we might soon be facing such atrocities ourselves.

I can also imagine myself, ten years from now, about the age my father (and his twin) were when they declined rapidly into an endless nightmare of rage and paranoia as dementia took hold of them. I am already often forgetting things, especially people’s names, and sometimes what I was just doing. I imagine myself, not improbably, headed down the same road he went. I am quite sure that even if the ghastly Conservatives don’t get elected, Canadians in my situation will still have no right to a death with dignity. I imagine I will be shackled to a cot “for my own safety” as the demons possess what is left of my destroyed mind. As I will then be insane, I imagine my “advance directive” for MAID will have no legal force and the doctors will just shrug and say to my family and friends that they’re doing all they can legally do. If I’m lucky, I will retain just enough sanity to refuse food and water. These are the consequences of failure.

Am I ashamed at these looming and continuing failures, ashamed of my own behaviours and those of Canada’s governments? Not a bit. We’re all doing our best, the only thing we can do. I am, of course, more than a little afraid of the suffering that will likely come as a consequence of these failures. And I certainly appreciate how we may all be incapable of admitting to these failures, because the shame and/or fear are just too much to bear.

But it’s interesting to observe just how powerful a role our not-so-simple incapacity to admit failure seems to play in what is unfolding these days.

  1. Paul Heft suggested I define the term ‘top caste(s)’, since I use it often, rather than ‘upper class’ or ‘elite’, when describing those who, while not organized or coordinated, disproportionally make and affect political and economic decisions, and hoard most of the world’s wealth at the expense of others. So here’s my stab at a definition (thanks to Paul for several edits):

Caste is hereditary or acquired social rank, as recognized by one’s peers (and often by those of other castes), that brings with it unique, tacitly accepted privileges, status, wealth, recognition, access, respect, authority and opportunities not permitted or accessible by those of lower castes. Factors influencing one’s peer-perceived and peer-recognized caste may include, for example, in addition to one’s parents’ acknowledged caste and pedigree, one’s race and ethnicity, birthplace, workplace and other positions and titles, level and type of education, physical appearance and dress, physical stature and health, emotional health, wealth and income, behaviour and demeanour, choice of spouse, artistic and cultural tastes, memberships, location of seating in public events and public transportation, and the people with whom one associates and the extent of one’s connections to others in that peer caste and higher. Caste is not usually a formal recognition, and different people might perceive you to be a member of different castes, but any one person would likely perceive you to be a member of one particular caste — theirs or another (though in any community or society there may be a lot of castes, some more distinct than others). 

I try not to judge whether the existence of castes is a good or bad thing. All I know is that they exist, and have an enormous impact on our lives. How big is the ‘top caste’? I don’t know — it’s too amorphous and ever-changing a group to even guess. I do know that at one time in my life, for a brief few years, I was acknowledged (and, I confess, a bit flattered) to be part of it. And that I am no longer. 

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1 Response to Our Incapacity to Admit Failure

  1. Ivor Tymchak says:

    As the concept of free will has been scientifically discredited (although, admittedly, that breakthrough has yet to be acknowledged by the controlling powers) the ideas of shame and failure can be disregarded. Failure is just being unlucky.

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