On gullibility

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. At some point or other in our lives everyone is gullible but what separates those people who are consistently gullible from those who are not? The ability to learn from experience is important, likewise the need not to be deferential in the face of political correctness and orthodoxy.

On gullibility

By: Gareth van Onselen

18 September 2012

To what extent is a gullible person responsible for their own naivety? When fooled, were they a victim or simply credulous?

Pride often ensures a gullible person’s natural response to being misled is to feign innocence and to suggest that, despite careful consideration, an idea or position was too cleverly manipulated for any reasonable person to have realised, in truth, it was designed merely to exploit their good faith. In other words, having been duped is in no way a comment on their judgement.

That defence, however, is the very hallmark of gullibility; for it is to excuse one’s critical facilities from any wrongdoing when, in fact, they are entirely to blame. A gullible person has surrendered something. They believe in spite of, not because of. Be it reason or intuition they have placed their faith in an idea despite their reservations.

To post rationalise that decision as sound is merely to offer themselves up once more, to be taken advantage of again, as clearly they have learnt little from the experience.

Political correctness is a powerful force in this regard. The sheer weight of the deference it demands before ideas that, while problematic, appear acceptable renders gullible people willing to capitulate, yielding any rational concern before it, in order that they might take pride of place in the army of the unthinking. Political correctness is the drug that dulls agency and gives the gullible the confidence to act on guilt and insecurity.

Politicians are more easily able to abuse the gullible because their very standing is the result of good faith. And so, having already invested in them some good will, it makes sense the gullible naturally assume their actions are all likewise born of good intent.

The truth is that their decisions are best seen as test against that faith, not confirmation of it. And the most responsible thing anyone can do in this regard is voice their disquiet, rather than suppress it.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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