ON BEING WRONG
I heard a TED talk once about being wrong. Kathryn Shultz, the speaker, asked the audience how it felt to be wrong. Several people gave exaggerated frowns, a few did the thumbs down thing. And she said — ”wrong!” It feels great to be wrong because no one knows when they are wrong (unless they are liars — but that’s a different thing.) The problem with being wrong is that it feels like being right. Add a dash of self-righteousness, a smidge of stubbornness, and you have yourself a full-blown wall of dead wrong. So, if being wrong feels so right, how do we ever get out of it? Or, to put it another way, if you don’t know your head is up your posterior, and don’t believe the people around you who tell you that it is, how will you ever rectify that situation. (haha. Get it? Rectify??)
In my early 20's I worked as a waitress. One night, while cashing out a customer, I gave him the wrong change. “You owe me 40 cents,” he said. I looked him straight in the eye and said, “No I don’t. There are 60 cents in a dollar.” I was dead serious. He looked at me like I had suddenly sprouted tentacles and buck teeth. Here’s the kicker. I proceeded to argue with him until he left, fuming. It wasn’t until later that night when my brain finally got back from vacation that I realized, in horror, that I had been wrong. stupendously wrong. Ridiculously, stupendously, wrong. But being wrong is not typically so obvious. And there are literally millions of ways to do it.
Ironically, the “age of information” does not seem to be helping things. One would think that with such easy access to facts, people would hold on to wrong ideas less fervently. But we find ourselves living in an age where “fact” has become subjective. There are facts to support almost every side of a subject. Searching for facts has become the all you can eat bar at the local diner: there’s a lot to choose from, but most of the choices are contaminated. It is a bazaar and scary twist on the power of information — playing out spectacularly in public politics. And both sides are pointing their fingers in utter disbelief that the other side could be so totally blind and stupid.
I watch it from my couch, hear it in the streets, and in discussions among close friends — and I wonder how we will ever be okay if we cannot agree on what is true. If we flatly refuse another persons source of truth as invalid? Typically, when I teach debate, I tell the students that Logos (logic) is the most powerful form of persuasion, cautioning them against too much emotion, too much appeal to sympathy. The thing is though, I’m not sure that’s how things are working anymore. I could list a hundred facts about how Planned Parenthood provides services far beyond abortion and is a valuable, and necessary, service for women. But would it matter? It certainly doesn’t seem like it. Because if your head is up your posterior, but all you see are mountains, you’re never going to believe my facts. Even if you can’t feel the nose on your own face.
I think, then, that we have to change the tone. I have to accept that my facts are not validated by the other side. And find a way towards a conversation despite this. Maybe all those years ago, if the man on the other side of the counter would have said, “Okay, how many minutes are in an hour? How many pennies in a quarter? How many quarters in a dollar?” I might have gotten there. And if not, at least he left knowing he did his level best. Maybe for the bigger stuff, we can start by not assuming the worst. It’s tough. The refusal of fact makes me feel angry. It makes me feel like the other person is ignorant, then stupid, then evil. Then there is nothing but contempt. But what If I started by assuming the person on the other side of the argument was intelligent, and probably a good person. Would that change the conversation? Would I allow it to?
I think the more passionately one feels about something, the harder it is to allow another person their differing viewpoint. Because allowance feels like acceptance. And there are certain things you should not accept. I get it. I agree, even. But people who defend ideas you disagree with are not the ideas they are promoting. They are people. And the only way to have influence is through relationship. And we have to get there. Somehow.
So next time you are tempted to point out that a person has their head up their ass, take a breath. 1) They won’t believe you. And 2) They will only point out that your head is , undoubtedly, up yours.