Being unreasonable

I would be surprised if nobody visiting this site thought, “surely it’s okay to be unreasonable sometimes, isn’t it?”

And perhaps, given I am promoting ‘the art of being reasonable’, you will be surprised by my answer: yes, of course!

In fact, I believe it is vital to be unreasonable. But not when working with other people to achieve your objectives.

George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright, put it best in one of his Maxims for Revolutionists:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

If you are interested in changing the world – whether a little or a lot – you may be described as ‘unreasonable’. But in what sense?

The Oxford Dictionary of English defines unreasonable as, ‘not guided by or based on good sense’. But many aims that might be described as ‘unreasonable’ may well be guided by or based on good sense.

For example, you could believe the ultimate aim of any charity should be to stop existing. The rationale for that aim is that a charity should want to change the world in such a way that its work is no longer needed.

That aim is considered ‘unreasonable’ by some because, they say, “it will never happen”. My response is usually to agree that it won’t if everyone thinks like that.

Someone who responds in that way clearly thinks the aim is not guided by or based on good sense. But what is really at issue is what one or other person thinks is achievable.

That is what is at the heart of Bernard Shaw’s maxim. The unreasonable person does not limit themselves by what anyone thinks is achievable; they set out to achieve an extreme objective.

It is when you are setting your objectives that it is not only okay to be unreasonable – it’s necessary. Your objectives reflect your vision of a world adapted to your, or your organisation’s, beliefs.

When you take your objectives to other people, the people who have the power to change the world, they may consider them unreasonable in the dictionary’s second sense: ‘beyond the limits of acceptability or fairness’.

Unacceptable or unfair to them, of course. Not to you or the people you are working on behalf of. In the UK in the early 20th century, when it was first suggested, many people may have considered it unreasonable to fund universal healthcare through taxation. “Why should I pay for other people’s healthcare?” those who could afford it may have asked themselves.

This is why it is important to be reasonable when trying to achieve your objectives. If you simply state them and expect the force or ‘morality’ of what you believe to be enough, you are likely to alienate a potential ally who considers them unreasonable.

If you can make your objective theirs, great. But in many cases that will not be possible. What you do need to convince them of is that your immediate objective is reasonable – just like you.