All Commentary
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Fruits of Imperfection

On toleration and criticism.

Beneath the nationalism and medal counts that seemed to dominate the Winter Olympic Games just ended lies a deeper lesson: the importance of imperfection.

Why do athletes compete at such a high level, sacrificing dearly — sometimes, as we have seen, even their lives?  For many reasons, of course, but it’s often said they are “striving for perfection.”  This can’t literally be true.

In some cases it’s hard even to imagine what this could mean. What is the perfect downhill time or the perfect hockey game?  Here, you’re just trying to do better than your previous time or to beat the other guy.  More important, even in those instances where it might be conceivable to envision perfection, that vision will change as we learn more about the world and what it’s possible to do in it.  Such a vision could never be “perfect” because perfection rules out the possibility of improvement, and change would only diminish it.  In this sense, perfection is essentially static.

Athletes and the rest of us are really just trying to do the best we can under the circumstances.  In a world of uncertainty and change that’s the most we can hope to do – better, not perfect.  At the same time it’s the very uncertainty and imperfection of the world that makes improvement (and decline) possible.  In this sense, imperfection is essentially dynamic.

There are several directions one could go with this idea.  Here, I would like to relate it to political philosophy.  (I’m not a political philosopher, however, so I hope those of you who are will forgive the trespass.)

Tolerance and Criticism

The belief that perfection is reachable in this world can be extremely dangerous.  That’s because striving for perfection seems to go hand in hand with extreme intolerance.  Sometimes – as when an athlete, scientist, or artist devotes herself to “perfecting” her skills – the results of not tolerating less than total effort may be beautiful, despite all the frustration and torment it takes to get there.  But when intolerance leads to torment inflicted on others, in an effort to achieve a particular vision of perfection, the result is ugly and destructive.

Since we and the rest of the world are imperfect, we and the rest of the world make mistakes – all the time.  We can beat ourselves (and others) up over them, but if we want to progress — if we are to take the chances necessary to improve our situations — then we have to be okay with the unexpected and with error.  Tolerance, and its close relative trust (and possibly forgiveness, but I wont’ go there right now), are indispensable for social and economic flourishing.

Does this mean that we have to tolerate everything?  No.  Progress — correcting our mistakes and improving our situations — also requires criticism.  Tolerance without criticism is something like indifference, and that’s never a constructive attitude.  To adjust to or anticipate change, at both the individual and social levels, involves using our reason to analyze what we have done and to question where we are going.  We look at the mistakes we’ve made in a highly critical fashion so that we avoid making them again.  Actually, we have to first realize that we have indeed made a mistake, which may be the hardest part.  And because it’s hard to do any of this ourselves, it’s important that we are subject to the criticism of others, just as we criticize them.  Criticize and be criticized!  Competition and the threat of competition in sports, science, commerce, and the arts is an expression of this kind of criticism, all occasioned by imperfection.

At the same time, to avoid violent conflict, competition requires tolerance.

Tolerance and criticism are at the very heart of a free society.  They are radical: They “go to the root” of the matter – radical tolerance, radical criticism.  But, again, you need both.  Tolerance without criticism is insipid; criticism without tolerance is, well, intolerable.

Conan and the Stones

These twin virtues of a free society are the fruits of the inevitable imperfections in human beings and their relations with other human beings.  Of course, I’m not arguing that we should strive for imperfection.  For one thing, that would be a waste of time because we’re already pretty imperfect.  For another, I don’t think it’s really possible to try to be imperfect, any more than we can make a mistake on purpose (because if we do it on purpose it’s not a mistake).

But I think appreciating the profound imperfections of life is something that helped Conan O’Brien cope with his disappointment at being ousted from The Tonight Show after only seven months in his dream job.  On his last night as host he said, without bitterness or cynicism, “Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get.”  This is reminiscent of the Rolling Stones’ song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

Conan and the Stones understand that life is imperfect. Perhaps it makes them wise.

You can find a Portuguese translation of this article here

  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.