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How to Be Wrong

I wasn’t trained to think. If you were born anytime in the last thousand years, chances are neither were you. In classical education—the kind engaged in by the ancient Greeks and those in later generations who sought to emulate them—the study of learning was nearly as important as the learning itself. Logic was taught, so that the educated could understand where they were likely to be wrong so as to better avoid it. The intellectual leaders who poured the philosophical foundation upon which the United States of America was built—Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, Monroe—were inspired by the works of Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, the rediscovery of whom ended the Dark Ages. Jefferson himself believed no education could be thought complete without a full reading of Homer and Virgil in the original Greek and Latin. Can you imagine such a thing being spoken today, even by a President? The Renaissance (literally “rebirth”) was a replanting of the classical spirit of self-discovery, and the Catholic Church—by nurturing the bud back into bloom through patronage—boosted its own prestige but doomed itself to death at the hands of the very tools it had kept safe: reason, education, and art. No church can survive the application of reason, and once its robes are exposed by education as imaginary, art steps in to make us laugh at the nakedness.

Most of the American founders were thinking men inspired by philosophers, and had little respect for either the Catholic Church nor the Protestant denominations which followed it. They learned to tread carefully, however, so as not to offend them and lose the support of the devout countrymen they hoped to elevate. Fortunately (unlike in modern America) they had only to make occasional token gestures to appease the believers, like putting “and nature’s god” (originally uncapitalized and clearly a Deist statement, not a religious one) into the Declaration of Independence. The barriers to voting were far higher than today, a two-edged sword, and most of the citizens allowed to vote were educated. That time was called the Enlightenment, and its leaders were writers and thinkers like Paine, Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes, Kant—men (and in rare cases, like Mary Wollstonecraft, women) who stood on the very edge of the Dark Ages and held up a light.

Bertrand Russell somewhat-famously said, “The fundamental cause of trouble in the world today is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” The men who stood at the edge of that darkness were the doubters; they stood up against centuries of certainty because the truth was more important to them than the comfort of what they already believed. In other words, it didn’t matter what felt true, it only mattered what was.

Does Reality Matter Anymore?

Can you imagine such a test being applied to the debate over health care reform? JustaDifferentAnswer.gifCan you imagine contemptible rumors like “death panels” and “euthanasia” being uttered by national leaders in the Age of Enlightenment and given the same weight as the truth despite being laughable lies? I can hardly even believe that some of my own friends believe these things when they arrive in their inboxes. Instead of honorable arguments between valid points of view—like “Will this bill bankrupt us?” (a genuine concern worth debating!) versus “Will this bill prevent bankruptcy by lowering costs?”—we have two superficial, or outright false, points of view being treated as if they were legitimate opponents. The same people who would demand their money back if they went to a NASCAR race and found all the competitors but one riding bicycles, think absolutely nothing of watching an outright lie compete against the truth and judging it a fair match. “The truth,” the fair-minded among them will say, “is somewhere in between.”

I am dearly disappointed when even the people I love most believe what comforts them above what’s real. But what explains it? What makes people so good at telling the difference between cars and bicycles but so bad at telling the difference between truth and fiction?

I think it’s because people hate to feel wrong.

“The average man does not get pleasure out of an idea because he thinks it is true; he thinks it is true because he gets pleasure out of it.”
—H. L. Mencken

This is what smart people in America have found so distasteful in the past decade about this country they otherwise love so much. The Enlightenment values upon which we were built have been replaced, brick by brick, by self-righteousness. The need to feel right triumphing over the desire to be right. The men and women of the Enlightenment loved to find out what they were wrong about. They loved finding out they were wrong about the number of planets, wrong about the nature of disease, wrong about the age of the universe. They sought it out, and they loved it, because it gave them a chance to become right. Not completely right, of course, but more right than they were yesterday. Among the truly open-minded, being wrong is nothing to be defensive about. It’s something to be sought! This is one of the forgotten faces of courage.

What it’s taken us longer to realize is that the same failure of courage has crippled our personal lives. Even worse than in the public square, hating to feel wrong is poison to our peace. The smug, sick stubbornness of the men and women we love to mock on trash-talk TV shows and Judge Joe Brown—the ignorance, the deeply angry feeling of entitlement they proudly flourish because they need to feel right—this is what happens when reason, education, and art are lost in the first society to have been founded upon them. Those three pillars of Enlightenment—truth, learning, and beauty—have been replaced by a single soporific goal, the pursuit of which has numbed us into idiocy: self-esteem.

A Healthy Immunity to Truth

The goal of our lives, we were once told, was to improve ourselves, which meant being honest about where we had been mistaken. Taken too far, this can become oppressively intolerant, so much so that in the late 20th century “judgmental” became one of the worst things anyone could be called. In the 1960’s, America got sick of intolerance and careened to to opposite pole. Once that happened, it wasn’t long before exercising the faculty of good judgment became mocked as an intolerant act. The distinction between good judgment and bad was lost—and since judgment is itself the ability to distinguish between good and bad, this meant the loss of all judgment. Now anyone who exercises it is called “judgmental.” Self-esteem became the new prize. All children should be proud of themselves, no matter how little they have accomplished. Once this horrific standard was erected, it wasn’t long before an entire generation of children, the kids of the free-spirited Baby Boomers, learned that to be celebrated for their achievements they no longer had to actually achieve anything—and neither, now, do their children. They were liberated from the contraints of cause and effect; the consequences of laziness were trophies and college diplomas.

But the personal consequences of this loss were dire: divorce rates skyrocketing, credit debt and bankruptcy, trailer parks full of illiterates who just knew they deserved their flat-screen TVs, smartphones, and spinning rims. You can’t have a false sense of entitlement without a false sense of your own worth.

Most of the greatest evils that man has inflicted upon man have come through people feeling quite certain about something which, in fact, was false.
— Bertrand Russell

Does Reality Matter?

Just watch the backstage interviews after a TV judge show. In those occasional clear-cut cases where one party has been indisputably proven to be wrong, they still stand by their story! When you can’t tell the difference between truth and fiction, you have developed an immunity to truth.

“We confuse how we feel with knowledge.” —Chris Hedges

When what you value in life is divorced from what’s actually worth valuing, it should not surprise you to find wreckage in your wake. I read an essay by Chris Hedges (“The Educated vs. People Easily Fooled by Propaganda“) and he summarizes it beautifully: “We confuse how we feel with knowledge.” Grownups behave like infants, believing every cry must be answered with milk. If you’re tempted to argue against my condemnation of our culture of inflated self-esteem, keep in mind the research bears it out:

If the research doesn’t drive it home, here’s a great anecdote that illustrates it: “How Children Cope With Failure.”

Speaking of Logic, Matt

I do not mean to suggest there is a direct causal link between the withering of Enlightenment values and spouses being mean to one another—even if you accept the intermediate step of self-righteous spoiled children. That one is quite a long trail of breadcrumbs. However, it’s useful to look at the similarities, because the same tools that lead to better civil discourse can be brought to bear on communicating well with your sweetheart.

The point I hope to make is simply that most of the problems we have communicating with one another come from our unwillingness to be wrong. We grow attached to what we know. It’s simply how the human brain works. Knowing this means knowing how to get along beautifully with others. Knowing this means you can work to set aside your own story and look for the truth. The way the brain works is better understood every year; look up “cognitive biases” and “logical fallacies” and you’ll find we’ve known for a long time what’s wrong with our minds—mine and, yes, yours. There is a natural human tendency to screw up. The solution is not to pretend that this fact doesn’t apply to you, but to embrace it fully and do everything you can to compensate. How? By questioning your own premises. By welcoming disagreement instead of feeling attacked by it. By learning how to disagree without fighting—productively, and sometimes even joyfully. If your childhood taught you to detest conflict, is it any wonder you’re not any good at it?

How I Came to Love Being Wrong

In the past two years I’ve developed a kind of passion for dealing frankly with the truth about things, no matter how I feel about them. This means asking frightening questions, with surprising answers, about spirituality, love, and how the mind works to trick us. I’ve been nearly alone in this devotion—a desolate loneliness, having been specifically instructed by my most dearly beloved friend never to bring these things up.

During this time I’ve discovered I was wrong about a great many things. It’s been traumatic at times, but after the early shock of it came profound joy and peace—in its own way, quite spiritual and deeply comforting. This is how I came to love to be wrong. It’s become my strong, and strongly-tested, opinion that it shouldn’t be acceptable to be demonstrably wrong but still carry on as if you had been right. It shouldn’t be acceptable in politics, and it shouldn’t be acceptable at a dinner table between lovers.

What I propose is simple. There’s nothing wrong with being wrong. It’s wrong to be wrong and not be honest about it. That is moral cowardice.

People are attached to their stories about life. Me, you, all of us. This does not, however, mean we’re all equally wrong. Isaac Asimov said it best: “When people thought the Earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the Earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.” But just try talking to a 9/11 conspiracy theorist and see how far you get. Try talking to Pastor John Hagee and convincing him the sprawling, delicate lattice of his life is built of ideas that are not simply profoundly influential but completely and demonstrably wrong. Good luck with that.

I love disagreeing with smart people. Not because of the disagreement itself—I get little out of that (unless I’m in an increasingly-rare mood to shine up my rusted-out debating skills)—and not just because I get the chance to show why I think I’m right, and thereby learn more about my own opinions. I mostly love it because I get to find out where I was wrong. I get to learn. Disagreement is not conflict unless the people involved aren’t any good at disagreeing. I’ve really enjoyed my disagreements with Nick, for example, and with my friend Phil, both of whom have starkly different views than I do, but both of whom listen and talk without coming from a place of feeling threatened. I don’t sense in them of a blind need to feel right, and so I find them a joy to disagree with. I get to come away having learned something. And often, having laughed.

“The truth of things is the chief nutriment of superior intellects.”
—Leonardo da Vinci

You and Your Shadow

The fact is that most people identify with their beliefs. Beliefs are supposed to be separate from you, so that they may be wielded when they are worthy, and discarded when they are wrong. But when a belief becomes part of your identity, it cannot be altered or discarded without loss of blood. Once they’ve absorbed a belief, you cannot argue against the idea without them feeling like you’re attacking the person. I can’t say this as well as Paul Graham did—read his essay, “Keep Your Identity Small.”

We should be free to attack one another’s stories without danger, as long as we have the maturity to do it without malice. If someone honestly and intelligently disagrees with your story, and you feel attacked, you have a problem. You have the problem I mentioned at the outset: you just hate to feel wrong. Ironically, this means you’re going to be wrong a lot more often than the fellow who loves finding out how he’s been mistaken.

It’s worse than that, too. You’ve pre-emptively sabotaged adult conversation. With you, one of the worst things someone can do to you is to tell you the truth. Even if you value truth above all things, you’ve unwittingly stood in its way. You may be luckier than most and only do this in one area of your life (which, by the way, I can almost guarantee is either sex, politics, or religion). But if it’s one, it’s probably more than one. You are a sucker for “confirmation bias,” which simply means that you prefer a flattering lie to an unflattering truth.

Can I Have My Truth Validated?

Traveling Matt’s
Backpack Almanac:
Tip #4
The more you need to feel right, the less you’ll tend to be right.

The worst kind of person to try to have an adult relationship with is the one who constantly needs to having their point of view “validated.” Now let me pre-empt the obvious objection and make it clear that having your point of view validated is dearly important, and not to be dismissed. It’s a natural need. We should go WELL out of our way to make those we respect feel validated. But not when they are wrong. You see, the need for validation becomes pathological the very moment you insist on it no matter whether or not you are right. Just like anorexia: the desire to have a slim body becomes pathological when you insist on it no matter whether or not you’re already slim. A lot of problems—bad breath, selfishness in bed, mumbling—are just branches of a tree, and one branch being sick doesn’t sicken the others. But a pathological need for validation is a sickness of the root, and all branches suffer from it. It is a wall separating you from the resolution of every other problem you now have or ever will. It is the end of communication. (See my entry “How To Prevent People From Telling You the Truth“)

Such a person will constantly insist that you see their point of view, but they will never see yours. You can apologize all you want, or do what I did and spend years discovering how very many things you were wrong about and try your best to speak of them, atone, and turn to your dear one for support; it will make very little difference to them. The only resolution to a disagreement is to ask them, with a broken heart, to leave you alone. They don’t want to know why you said what you said, don’t want to convert wrong into right; they just feel attacked. They just need you to validate their reasons for having done contemptible things to hurt you. Then they will see you as an abuser for telling the truth, and mock you for “playing the victim” after you finally speak up about how genuinely wrong they have been to you.

But it’s worse than that. Their friends will give them terrible advice, reassuring them that they’re right when they aren’t. Their friends, too, know they need to be validated and want them to be happy. Worst of all, they will think you are the one who always needs to feel right. You’ll be called the stubborn one, because you have at long last decided to honor the truth rather than their fragile feelings. As astonishing as it seems, they will feel abused. Accept it, my desolate friend: their need to feel right exists with or without you, and has nothing to do with being right.

What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite.
— Bertrand Russell

Our country is full of these people. They’re not them, they’re us. We have a kind of national pathology of needing to be validated. I think the culture of self-esteem is a significant reason for it. I think the problem is hating to feel wrong. Taking into the smallest spaces of your own heart the lessons of the Enlightenment can save your friendship, your marriage, and perhaps someday your country. The lesson is: learn to love to be wrong. It’s the only way to become right.

How? Question most harshly that which feels most true. That is where you are most blind. Consider the risk: if you feel right and turn out to be right, no damage was done. But if you feel right and are wrong, there is no hope of rightness. You won’t look for it; you’ll feel attacked whenever you’re challenged. Your most beloved ones will have to bend into fawning contortions to bring up the issue without hurting you. And you’ll think they’re the ones with the problem. Sometimes you will be wrong, sometimes you will be right. But when you’re wrong, you will break the hearts of the people who aren’t. These are the people who least deserve the hurt. Learn to love to be wrong.

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