Right and Wrong
This morning I came across an interesting lecture over at TED Talks by journalist, author, and “wrongologist” (apparently there is such a thing!) Kathryn Schulz called “On Being Wrong.” If you’ve got 18 minutes to spare, it’s well worth checking out.
As I watched this talk, my thoughts immediately turned to conversations we’ve been having on this blog about the sometimes unpleasant nature of online discourse. But I think the application of Ms. Schulz’s ideas here is very broad. Often, there is a decided unwillingness to admit that we might be wrong when we are exchanging ideas with others, whether in cyberspace or across the table at a coffee shop.
We don’t like to be wrong, after all, or even entertain the possibility that we might be. The correctness of our views—whether political, religious, or whatever else—is all too easily associated with our identity as human beings. Being right is thought to equal being good or virtuous or competent, or some other desirable trait. If we admit that we might be wrong about something—especially something that matters deeply to us and which we have poured significant time and energy into—what are we saying about ourselves?
Being right matters to us. Almost all of us, whether implicitly or explicitly, walk around pretty convinced that we are right about our views. And so we have to figure out how to explain the existence of so many people who don’t think like we do. In the lecture, Schulz almost perfectly describes the trajectory that many of us take when trying to convince others of our point of view:
- We begin by assuming that our conversation partners are simply ignorant. They don’t have all the facts, obviously. Once they are presented with the same facts we are currently in (crystal clear) possession of, they will surely come around to our side.
- If this fails, we move on to the next explanation. They are clearly idiots. They have the facts, but don’t seem to be able put them together or interpret them correctly.
- Finally, if they are presented with the facts and shown how to interpret them correctly, and still don’t change their minds? Well then they are simply evil. They are distorting the clear truth (that we apprehend perfectly) for their own (clearly malevolent) purposes.
On one level, this sounds comical, but I have been part of conversations where this progression was followed almost to the letter. This seems particularly to be the case in the realm of religious discourse. Perhaps it is because we think the stakes are higher here. If you’re wrong about the meaning and destiny of life, after all, the consequences could be extremely dire! Often, it seems like the main goal of this or that religious tradition is to install the “right” view of the world as early as possible in life, and then simply preserve this view, untainted, until the end of life. “Faith” is often synonymous with “being right” about things like God, morality, meaning, eschatology, etc.
I don’t think this is a very helpful way to look at the goal of religious life. I don’t think that our reason for being is to become as right as possible about as much as possible before we die. I don’t think this is what God wants or expects of us. I think it is important to admit that we might be wrong about things—even big things, things that we care deeply about, things that give our lives meaning and purpose and direction. I think, at the very least, that we have to be able to come to a place where we are able to move beyond the “ignorant, idiot, or evil” explanation for why people don’t see the world just as we do. I think that our limitations as human beings ought to make us more humble about what we think we know and more gracious with those who see things differently.
But… I also think that we are hardwired to crave solidity and certainty. Amidst the ocean of complexity that characterizes our lives, we need something firm to grab onto. We need something like genuine answers. I don’t think we can just walk around being completely open-minded about everything in our world. Nobody does this. Even Ms. Schultz, presumably, thinks that she is right that we ought to be more willing to admit that we might be wrong. It’s one thing to acknowledge the ambiguity and limitation of the human condition; it’s quite another to claim that embracing or celebrating this is a solution.
As informative and articulate as Schulz’s lecture was, I found myself profoundly dissatisfied with how it ended. She urged her audience to “look out at the vastness and complexity and mystery of the universe, and be able to say: ‘Wow, I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong.'” Cue rapturous applause… Or confusion. As humble as this statement sounds, and as moving a way to end a lecture as it might be, this simply cannot be where we stop. We need to be able to say, “even though there is much that I don’t know, and even though I have much to learn, I am convinced of… x.” We are creatures who don’t seem to be able to live without hope or meaning, and it’s tough to squeeze either out of “Wow, I don’t know.”
This week is Holy Week. Christians around the world will participate in services throughout the week that affirm our belief that certain things really did happen two thousand years ago, and that we really do have some kind of a clue as to what these events mean. In the context of the strange stew of postmodern relativism that characterizes large swaths of Western culture, we actually believe (gulp) that we are right about certain things—that Jesus really was crucified on a Roman cross, that he really was resurrected three days later, and that somehow God really has seen fit to reconcile all things to himself through these events.
Christians might be wrong about these things. Easter might be a giant exercise in wish-fulfillment. But based on what (and who) I think I know, I don’t think this is the case.
I might be wrong, but I am convinced. I think this is enough.