Principle versus Popularity

Posted on January 17, 2015 by Robert Ringer


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.

Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

20 responses to “Principle versus Popularity”

  1. Joan says:

    A timely reminder–thanks for the backbone builder!

  2. Will Bontrager says:

    Being raised Amish, I have first-hand experience with what you're talking about. Being true to principle feels good inside. Being popular can feel good, too, as I've experienced short periods of that. But popularity without principle probably wouldn't feel that good, perhaps like standing on a boat that feels like it's slowly sinking.


  3. ~joseph lacey says:

    Well said

  4. BAR says:

    Very wise; wisdom is rare

  5. Liz says:

    Nice that you used Ali as an example for integrity. He was one of the heroes of my youth. In the maintenance of principle, where do you place the maxim "Discretion is the better part of valor?"

    • Gordon Foreman says:

      I don't know how Robert may answer this, but I would suggest that we need to pick our battles carefully. Far too much of the time we get caught up in a conflict that need never have happened, simply due to unwillingness to concede a trivial point, or letting our ego keep us from backing down. There are fundamental issues that we need to respect and honor, but in reality, most of our battles in life are over things that in retrospect, didn't deserve the effort and attention that we gave them. Wisdom is being able to discern the difference. I'm still working on that!

      • tcw says:

        Yes…VERY GOOD observation. Pick your battles carefully. Sometimes, its just not worth it.

        I think in Roberts Example, he's using Ali as an example of Battles that are worth fighting for. In this Case, the heavyweight Champion of the World, was being Sabotaged by the powers that be. NATURALLY, he would fight against this.

  6. bullwinkle says:

    Funny I see George Foreman endorsing all sorts of things,
    Hollyfield couldn't knock him down, everyone got one of those "knocks out the fat " grills didn't they ?
    Situational ethics, as Mitt Romney prepares for a 3rd presidential run, his wife says practice improves all things, I think she should run instead !
    the sat morn presidential address is always moving, as exlax is….
    3 cheers Robert for reminding us of one of the few great americans in our lifetimes….
    all those protesters who blocked people on the way to work in Mass the other day cited indifference to their cause ! why don't they protest by refusing the gov't checks they are living on ?
    Do they have a quarrel w/ Muhammed Ali ?

  7. It's best to always live by your convictions. However, many discussions and arguments are not in your best interest., You can salvage your self-esteem and retain your peace of mind if you walk away from some situations. The zen state of non-resistance, non-reaction and non-attachment empowers the body, mind and spirit. A person must be in charge of his thoughts, feelings and actions at all times. So carefully choose your engagements.

  8. Yasdnil says:

    I would love to hear Robert's take on what I see as 'the third alternative', the desperate need to be 'right' and to have the last word. This is not standing for principles, but pure ego. It is not trying to be liked, it is trying to prove superiority. It is not making the customs officer like you, but being able to prove you are right and s/he is wrong.Think Sheldon in 'The Big Bang Theory'. Commentators and politicians also visibly suffer from this, don't they?

  9. larajf says:

    One problem I see is some people will state their opinion as X. I'll nod…it's their opinion. I may agree or hold opinion Y. What I dislike is that if I don't say something, they'll assume I agree with them. And if I say "OK, and I believe Y" I get labeled as a puppy-kicker. What I'd like to see changed is this bizarre insistence that everyone must agree or else there's something wrong with the other person. If we can listen and appreciate other opinions, it helps us grow…either more firm in our convictions or update them…but right now, people aren't growing. In general, they're shrinking and becoming petty.
    (and when is your daughter going to post again….I love her inspirational messages too)

  10. Robert Bonter says:

    I learned, first hand, of a dimension to Ali, in 1963, when he was still known as Cassius Clay and was the challenger to Sonny Liston's heavyweight boxing crown. I was walking up 7th Avenue in NYC one Saturday night in August of that year, when I noticed Cassius Clay, with a few friends, walking just ahead of me. As they turned to enter the Americana Hotel, Cassius took notice of two black men who were panhandling by holding out their hats to people passing by.

    Cassius stopped to chat with them, took a liking to them, and as many people around him were asking him for an autograph he stated: "You put dollar in the hat and I will give you and autograph." Well, over the next 45 minutes he raised literally hundreds of dollars for these two extremely grateful men, all the while spouting his "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" original poetry. I will never forget his moving words to these two men, upon saying goodnight to them. He said: "You come see me when I am heavyweight champion of the world." What a humble kind man he was and presumably still is. He made a fan of everyone who witnessed this little encounter, away from the media spotlight, for life.

    I might add that all I had in my wallet was a 20 dollar bill, so, waiting until Cassius said goodnight to everyone and started to enter the hotel. I caught up with him and asked him to sign it. That he did. Then followed the biggest financial mistake of my lifetime, I paid my rent with that Cassius Clay autographed 20 dollar bill, the following week, thinking Sonny Liston invincible and that one Cassius Clay would disappear from the public spotlight. My guess is that I could ask for and receive one million dollars today, had I kept that 20 dollar bill and laminated it. Oh well, maybe next time I will do better when Dame Fortune tries to smile upon me.

  11. boundedfunction says:

    i like ali. foreman, too. but "the lesson" is erroneous. it never has to go a particular way. there's the seen & the unseen, a la bastait's parable of the broken window. but there's also the unseeable – which is the future generally. hindsight is 20/20, people are wont to agree…but hindsight is also very much a kind of blindsight. blinded by "what happened" is the argument armory for what one "wants to happen" going forward. this is where the survivorship bias recipes come from.

    ali never went to prison. just because. if he had, it might have made the story better for the angle emphasized here. or it might have relegated the angle useless. lots of "dodgers" went to prison. bad things happen in prison.

    irwin schiff, peter's pop, is another conscientious objector. he was caged for 4 years in the late 80's, early 90's. he's in prison now "serving" a 14+ year sentence. he was 78 years old on the day of sentencing. he wrote a book while in prison. he's "not allowed" to sell it.

    for every ali type story, there are countless schiff type stories.

    kierkegaard said, "life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards". that's each individual life. there's no futures contract on commoditized life. there's no way around this, & that may make it the biggest takeaway close of them all.

  12. lopaze says:

    A wise man once told me if you don't stand for something, you will fall for anything…

  13. joesugar says:

    This past summer, my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, KY as we passed through. A great way to spend an afternoon if you're interested in his story.

  14. Heather says:

    Nicely written reminder, Robert

  15. Please don"t forget the principle of Muhammad Ali fight!
    the 1400 years of wars of Islam prove that if they refuse to get into a battle is simply because they will make a bigger one! to serve they"re interest!

    from Black Power to Islam just a small step as 9-11 to Obama!


    17- 'It's a divine fight. This Foreman – he represents Christianity, America, the flag.
    I can't let him win. He represents pork chops.'


  16. I so wish Ail hadn't taken so many to the head unnecessarily. Sad to see him so subdued. I think I saw all, or most, of his fights. Ali entertained! And, I really detest Governments using young men as "cannon fodder"! Often, what are wars really about? Petty Power & Business$ Greed! Not high Principles. Now, however, is a complex situation, and WWIII has begun.

  17. words2influence says:

    Don't know if self respect and self esteem are commodities?? They are priceless for sure.

  18. John says:

    When it came to principles, my dad used to say they can take everything away from you but your name and if you let them take that, you’re nowhere. I know that I have a reputation of being uncompromising and that’s perfectly fine with me. I’ll compromise on style, but not substance. There are certain things that are not for sale, if that means a raise or a promotion or that someone else is more popular than I am, so be it. I have to look at myself in the mirror in the morning when I shave and like what I see.

    Sometimes that can be a lonely trail to walk because there is a need to be accepted and nobody likes to be rejected. Better to be rejected for who you are than to be accepted for who you are not. The fringe benefit of this exercise is that you will find out who your friends really are and who they are not. I have learned a lot about whose opinion I should invest emotion in (including some superiors at work) and who is just playing the corporate game. You learn to winnow the wheat from the chaff and come out with friends and coworkers you can truly count on.