The interminable drudgery of many a predictable dramatic narrative has found itself gratefully resuscitated by the poor choices made by a leading character. In a world so enamoured by the fictional parables of heroism and success delivered en masse to our households and smart-phones by the proliferating vectors of mass media and information over-saturation, the volitional poverty of our hapless heroes constitutes a relief from the unrelenting chorus of aspirational perfection, personality renovation and lifestyle self-improvement we must endlessly endure. These moments where the screenwriter’s ascription of a perennial poverty of choice to their primary character (or characters) serve a variety of functions above the mere fleshing-out of a dull spot in the dramatic process or as a source of new and otherwise improbable plot twists.
Beyond delivering us the modern equivalent of those ancient mythologies in which the Gods were divine mirrors for the earthbound litany of human failure and emotional turmoil, the fallible hero is also the somewhat less-than-perfect anchor upon which another (perhaps less obvious) archetype rests. A lesser known, or at least unacknowledged, aspect of historical development and change is the role that poor thinking and terrible decisions have played in the onwards march of historical progress.
Much intellectual capital is invested in the notion that human beings are perfectly rational actors and each on their own social and economic life’s individual stage. Beyond pure generalisation or wishful caricature, it is a rare individual indeed who can be shown to always and in every circumstance choose the most sensible and beneficial choices from the wide menu available to them. There are vast taxonomies of equations and behavioural attributions to which we are all expected to conform when seen through the filter of an economist’s analysis but, as is readily apparent, this idealised person hardly resembles real human beings to any significant degree.
In sum total, the personal errors of choice and fallible reasoning of every single human being would have to multiply to such an astounding level of complexity as to make social and economic reality somewhat less predictable than is the weather (and for similar reasons of measurement where the numbers of dynamic factors and variables are beyond count). This would leave us with nothing more than relatively insubstantial generalisations with which to portray the world and the people within it. It is a source of great potential error and negative consequence to be unable to distinguish an effective difference between the loose caricatures with which we communicate and the actual immensely complex realities of society, politics, economics, the environment and human history. This equivocation is however exactly what is done by some persons fundamentally lacking in conceptual sophistication and unable to conceive that these simplistic crayon-drawings with which we communicate or seek to politically influence, these are not actually the same as the reality to which we are referring.
It may of course in many cases be true that this categorical mistake of misidentification between the caricature and the reality can be portrayed with influence to sway opinion and swing a public debate one way or another. The self-conscious use of error spans a spectrum from cunning ideological ploy through to unwitting buffoonery. Where a political figure themselves may not possess the intelligence to even comprehend their own error we find ourselves staring down the loaded double-barrel threat of historically disastrous mistakes. When an individual (or group of individuals at varying scales) finds themselves at a particular nexus or meeting point of coincident factors which may have a significant historical resonance and consequence, we may find ourselves witness to an unwitting entry into the ledger and unwritten historical document which is represented by the Great Mistakes of History.
Great mistakes are rarely recognised by those who commit them or at least they remain as unacknowledged errors so heavily steeped in ideology and vehement, retrospective self-justification that they become potentially obscured in regards to culpability or the attribution of responsibility. These errors proliferate in this current world to an extent that they have almost become the status quo, a normative thread of unfortunate choices and even more unfortunate events. The power of poor decisions to shape history is only dwarfed by the potentially seminal importance of tragedy and catastrophe (through its deep resonance and affective causal cascades across cultures) to drive historical change and progress. Poor decisions, actions and speech at the macroscopic scale are only different from the aggregated errors of our daily lives by a matter of degree. Good decisions and benevolent acts seem always to be muffled by the chorus of terrible choices that are made. Decisions, both good and bad, are indelibly inked in time and like the bell which having been rung can not be un-struck, we just have to learn to live with them.