What not to say

Mark Vernon explains why putting your foot in it is a vital aspect of being human

Everyone has them. "I didn't know what to say!" Times when you are silenced - overwhelmed with embarrassment, gobsmacked, dumbstruck - because someone confronts you with a situation, and you have no idea how to respond.

Little wonder people would rather say anything than ask someone with a terminal disease about it. They prefer to avoid talk about politics, and "don't do God". Or - in a new chapter in the history of impossible social predicaments - they click "Confirm" rather than "Ignore" when someone they barely know asks them to be a friend on Facebook. After all, being handed a spade to keep digging is possibly even worse than being given a rope to hang yourself. If you hang, you die; if you dig, you live to recall the hideous moment - and die a little death each time you do.

So it may come as something of a surprise to learn that philosophers have argued that such moments are some of the most valuable in life.

"To err is human," the Latin adage goes - implying that mistakes are humanising. Why? Partly because everybody makes them and so everybody should be charitable about them: it will be you some time soon. And, more interestingly, because embarrassing impasses are actually moments of opportunity when you can learn something new. The shock of such moments can pierce otherwise impenetrable egos. As Sigmund Freud realised, in pondering the power of free association, it is what you mean not to say that is in fact most revealing of yourself.

Alternatively, such precipitous moments are at the heart of Socratic philosophy: Socrates's method was to talk his interlocutors into silence, because that way they reached the limits of what they knew, and were in a position to learn more.

"Even the sage trips over the truth seven times a week," goes another saying, which is to say that it happens every day. There is advantage to be gained in the sage so doing. For a really good error is one that can lead to an excellent correction.

Moving beyond the personal towards the great collective pursuit of knowledge, such a process, according to Karl Popper, is at the heart of the scientific method: the best hypothesis is the one that is the most easily falsifiable. To put it another way, the very guardians of truth in our society, scientists, are nothing if not in the business of making mistakes. Think of Ptolemy, Newton or Lamarck. They were wrong, but they were prepared to stick their necks out and, as a result, we are all the better for it. Perhaps one day people will say the same of Einstein, Bohr, or even Darwin.

The lesson would seem to be this: don't mind the risk of saying the wrong thing. Rather, say the wrong thing, but brilliantly.

Mark Vernon's "What Not To Say: Finding the Right Words at Difficult Moments" is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£12.99, hardback) on 1 November

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.