Today is Muhammad Ali’s seventy-third birthday, and it’s yet another reminder that it’s more important to be loyal to your principles than to be popular. Truth and popularity, in fact, are all too often at odds with one another.
In comparing his own life to that of Socrates in his book The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton writes:
In conversations, my priority was to be liked, rather than to speak the truth. A desire to please led me to laugh at modest jokes like a parent on the opening night of a school play. With strangers, I adopted the servile manner of a concierge greeting wealthy clients in a hotel — salival enthusiasm born of a morbid, indiscriminate desire for affection.
I did not publicly doubt ideas to which the majority was committed. I sought the approval of figures of authority and after encounters with them, worried at length whether they had thought me acceptable. When passing through customs or driving alongside police cars, I harboured a confused wish for the uniformed officials to think well of me.
Sound familiar? It should, because we are all guilty, at one time or another, of not having the courage to reveal our true thoughts. In fact, none of us will ever totally rid ourselves of the sometimes overpowering need to be accepted. It is a psychic disability that is part of the human condition.
At the same time, we know, in our heart of hearts, that some of the biggest fools on the planet are popular. If we need reinforcement of this point, all we have to do is turn on our television sets and listen to the babble of the many high-profile bobbleheads who grace our screens.
But doesn’t a civilized society require tactfulness and compromise? Yes, these traits can save a lot of wear and tear on the emotions, so there’s nothing wrong with compromising on superficial points. In fact, compromising on superficial issues can be beneficial if it helps get you past trivial issues without being dragged into debates or unpleasant confrontations.
But compromising on principles, however, is never a good idea. How do you compromise between good and evil? Between moral and immoral? Between freedom and slavery?
Also, never forget that circumstances change. And when they do, perceptions can change. A classic example of this is the way the public perception of Cassius Clay did a one-eighty when he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Then again when he refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army on the grounds that he was a conscientious objector.
Ali may not have been well versed on Socrates, but he certainly spoke with clarity when he said, in answer to his critics, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” Whether you loved or hated him for it, you had to admire the fact that he didn’t back down when Uncle Sam threatened him with five years in prison at the height of his boxing career.
What I still find amazing is that not only was Ali stripped of his heavyweight title, state boxing commissions throughout the country suspended his licenses to fight at all. He was convicted after a jury deliberated for only twenty-one minutes.
However, he appealed the decision, and the clock ticked away for four years before the Supreme Court finally overturned his conviction. And guess what happened during that time? Circumstances changed. As with the Iraq War, the majority of Americans came to oppose the Vietnam War with a passion, and a side effect of that was that Ali became wildly popular.
Ali’s principled stance cost him the best-earning years of his career, but he became an icon of conviction. Without question, had he not refused to compromise his principles, he would not be the bigger-than-life, heroic figure that he is today.
Ali’s story is an inspiring reminder of just how important it is not to compromise one’s principles. Like everyone, I’ve had my share of people getting mad at me for something I’ve said, something I’ve done, or for refusing to go along with something they wanted me to do with which I was not comfortable.
In this vein, I’d like to pass along some advice from one of the wisest men I’ve ever known. About a year before he passed away, my friend “The Red Barron” told me that when people become angry with you for your words or actions, and you know that you’ve done nothing wrong, the solution is to look in the mirror and say to yourself:
“If my hands are clean and my cause is just and my demands are reasonable, I have nothing to worry about.” Then simply forget it and go about your business.
The nice thing about it is that unless it involves the government, sticking to your principles with Socratic stubbornness is unlikely to result in your execution. Of course, in certain instances, it could cost you financially, as it did Muhammad Ali. But, even then, the trade-off is worth it, because your self-respect and self-esteem will remain intact — and you can’t put a price tag on either of those precious commodities.
Speaking for myself, I’ll take principle over popularity every time. And I hope you will as well.