Empty chair accentuates Nobel winner’s point | Latte Guy | Jan. 7

One of the worst feelings in the world is being in the middle of an argument in which you have been passionately and strenuously advocating for a particular position, only to come to a sudden realization that you are dead wrong. I don’t know about you, but this happens to me on a regular basis.

There are two ways to proceed. You can admit that you are wrong. It is no shame to admit that, after further reflection or reconsidering the matter from a slightly different perspective, a situation now appears to you differently than it did previously.

After all, foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and the world is full of things that smart people once thought were impossible. Embarrassing in the short run, admitting one’s mistakes makes us all the more human.

Another approach when you realize you’re wrong about something is to soldier on and continue to argue passionately for your viewpoint in spite of the fact that you know you are advancing a position you now believe to be wrong.

Often people who adopt this tactic increase the volume and shrillness of their argument in inverse proportion to how indefensible they believe their position to be. If you are an advocate or practitioner of this approach, you may have a future in politics.

Of course, it’s not always so easy to know if you are on the wrong side of an argument. One way to ground truth in the legitimacy of your position is to take a step back and see who else is arguing on your side. If the people on your side of the issue are people who have been consistently wrong about similar things in the past, then perhaps you might reassess your position, or at least get some new friends.

I was thinking about how hard it can be to do the right thing as I was reading an article by Perry Link in December’s New York Review of Books. Link attended the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo on Dec. 10 when imprisoned Chinese scholar and essayist Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. China refused to allow Liu Xiaobo to attend the ceremony, and did not allow any member of his family to accept the award on his behalf.

China also aggressively attempted to organize a boycott of the awards ceremony, calling it a “farce.” Forty-five countries attended the ceremony while 19 went along with China’s boycott. Among the 19 boycotters were Russia, Pakistan, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Vietnam.

Being on the same team in this regard with Russia, Pakistan, Iraq and Cuba was one of those signals that should have alerted the Chinese that they might be on the wrong side of the issue in this case, particularly since it was likely that most, if not all, of the boycotting countries did so due more to diplomatic and economic pressure from China than from any sympathy with the Chinese government’s position on the merits of the award itself.

Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Nobel Committee, lamented the absence of Liu Xiaobo, and, unable to present the Nobel diploma and medal to Liu Xiaobo himself, dramatically presented the award instead to the empty chair next to him where the laureate would have been sitting.

Before awarding the medal and diploma to an empty chair, Jagland noted that this was not the first time a Nobel laureate had not been present to receive an award.

In fact, it has happened four times in the history of the award: in 1935, the Nazis held Carl von Ossietzky in prison; in 1975, Andrei Sakharov was not allowed to leave the USSR; in 1983, Lech Walesa feared that if he left Poland, he would be barred from ever returning; and in 1991, Burma held Aung Sang Suu Kyi under house arrest.

It’s bad enough when your boycott team includes Russia, Iran and Cuba. But when you find yourself taking an action that has only previously been taken by the likes of Nazi Germany, the USSR and Burma, perhaps it’s time to rethink your position. It can’t be fun or healthy to lose an argument to an empty chair.

Tom Tyner is an attorney for the Trust for Public Land. He is author of “Skeletons From Our Closet,” a collection of writings on the island’s latte scene.

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