The Blessing of Being Right

In all my years, I have yet to meet anyone who is right 100% of the time, or even 100% right at any time.  Part of the human condition is that we operate from a partial perspective — we see in a glass darkly, as it were.  Yet, we all have a perspective, and we tend to defend it because, after all, who fights for something they think is wrong, stupid or false?  It is in those times and places where we disagree that things sometimes get ugly.  And there are multiple reasons for this.  When we attempt to navigate differences in perspectives on Biblical interpretation, standards of conduct and performance, morality, governance, human rights, use and abuse of power, and whose sports team is better, a number of unconscious inferences and assumptions surface.  It is no wonder we have such a hard time disagreeing with one another in a loving, civil and respectful way.  After all:

  1. I know what I know, and no one can tell me differently.  To take liberties with Emerson, certainty (rather than foolish consistency) is the hobgoblin of small minds — and it lives within each and every one of us.  There are things we know that we know.  There is no question in our minds.  These are the bedrock assertions upon which we live our lives.  They CAN’T be wrong.  We wouldn’t “know” them if they were wrong.  We aren’t stupid — we don’t base our worldview on fallacy.  But extend this for a moment.  What happens in a room full of people who operate from this basic perspective?  As long as everyone agrees, knowledge is confirmed and all is right with the world.  But what happens when two different people know two different things?  Can both be right?  Someone has to be wrong?  Such binary thinking gets us in trouble.  The field of “fuzzy logic” is a wonderful analogy at this point.  Somewhere beyond “yes/no”, “either/or” thinking lies reality — both sides are right to some degree.  If my experience tells me that parking my car in a particular spot makes it more likely my car will be broken into, I might make the declarative statement, “That’s a bad neighborhood; don’t park your car there if you don’t want it broken into.”  This statement is neither totally true, nor is it totally false.  There are statement/predictions in it that might or might not come to pass.  There is judgment; there is opinion; there is even truth contained in this statement, but it is not a 100% true statement.  I may act on it completely and it may form my opinion of the area, but at best it is true for me, and cannot be extended generally to be true for all people.
  2. I am operating from a full understanding and adequate information; those who disagree must lack crucial information that allows them to make less informed judgments and draw less developed conclusions.  Each of us thinks things through as thoroughly as we believe we need to.  Once we arrive at a conclusion that works for us, we see no reason to go further.  Overthinking what we already “know” is a waste of valuable time and energy.  And it is insulting to us when someone either implies or states that we have not given something adequate thought.  I mean, we’re NOT stupid, right?  If other people knew what I know, they would agree with me — and this is accurate, to a point.  People who have identical information tend to have a higher degree of agreement than those who are hearing very different information (Fox, MSNBC, CNN, Wall Street Journal, etc.  People who bask in the glow of only one of these sources have a higher degree of agreement than those who bask in the glow of another…).  The flaw in logic here is that no one possesses all the information possible upon which to make a judgment or base an opinion.  A brilliant Ph.D. friend of mine with an IQ in the 170s once said, “To be a leading expert in your field means that you got 90% in classes that represented 10% of all the education possible comprising about 2% of the knowledge in a particular field or discipline.”  For everything we know, there are 10,000 things we don’t know.
  3. I am objective, reasonable and logical in my perspective, while others are being irrational, emotional, and biased.  I trust my own thought processes; I am not too sure about yours.  One person states assurance of eternal life in heaven based on the witness and personal experiences of literally millions of individuals throughout history while another states emphatically that dead is dead and there is no heaven based on the absence of any concrete and empirical evidence.  Both are convinced of the rightness of their thinking; each can articulate a clear argument; neither can understand what’s wrong with their opponent.  One pities the other for a lack of faith and putting too much trust in science; the other is aghast at the wishful thinking and rejection of the “facts”.  Apart from those suffering cognitive disabilities and limitations, no one tries to be illogical or irrational.  Certainly it happens, BUT it happens to us all!  I had a wonderful acquaintance with a physicist at Vanderbilt University who adamantly denied the existence of God due to lack of proof, but who got all giddy and effusive over the concept of infinite parallel universes.  Whenever I would ask him to show me more proof of parallel universes than I could show him of God, he would turn red, get petulant, and insult my lack of scientific knowledge and understanding.
  4. Since there is nothing wrong with my perspective, those who disagree with me must have a flawed perspective.  A man reads an article that says human sexual orientation is purely preference and that there is no biological basis for homosexuality.  Exploring further, he becomes aware that there are thousands of papers on this topic — about 35% agreeing with the initial paper, approximately 65% refuting it and promoting nature over nurture.  Initial learning tends to imprint on most people in a dramatic fashion.  It takes a lot of evidence to change a person from an initial perspective to a radically different perspective.  For most people 2-to-1 against is not sufficient disagreement or evidence to sway them.  The most common defense in protecting one’s initial learning is to assume that the information found convincing is “true,” and that contradictory information is flawed or has some bias.  I use this subject intentionally, because I feel it is precisely illustrative of how being right has become more important than deeply understanding and processing a deeply complex issue of human existence.  We are fighting to win an argument when it really isn’t an argument.  The continuous and constant clash of opinions/knowledge/truths/beliefs/perspectives cannot be solved in any kind of “right/wrong,” “true/false,” “good/evil,” “moral/immoral” dichotomous construct.  Everything we do, everything we think, everything we say is both moral and immoral, to some degree.  Insisting that something be one way or the other is ridiculous.  Is a person who gives generously in order to get the tax break more moral than someone who gives very little or nothing at all?  Is the man who is faithfully monogamous to the woman he beats regularly morally superior to someone three-times divorced?  Is the nurse who saves lives and gives comfort who steals drugs to feed an addiction a terrible person while an honest but incompetent and lazy nurse is better because she’s not doing anything intentionally wrong?  These are a few of the multitude of honest grey areas that we all too often reduce to simplistic binary judgments of right/wrong, because it makes life easier.  Some recent brain research shows that the human brain is not designed to deal well with ambiguity.  We are hard-wired to process “yes/no, right/wrong, good/bad, safe/dangerous” etc.  When faced with ambiguity and challenges to complex reasoning, the brain defaults to simplify.  (Which may explain Donald Trump’s popularity — not a whole lot of ambiguity or complexity…).  What makes sense to us is powerful.  If it works, it must be right and true.
  5. I am simply being honest/realistic/truthful, but they are mean/nasty/unfair.  For whatever reason, human nature drives us to ascribe intention and assume meaning.  A driver is distracted and in an unfamiliar part of town.  Finding himself in the wrong lane, he makes a sudden move, cutting off a car.  He feels embarrassed and is immediately sorry.  A woman, driving her children home from soccer is following a car in the left lane, but as she approaches, he suddenly cuts her off, crossing two lanes to turn right.  She is furious at the stupid, selfish, aggressive hot-shot driver, and she signals her anger with an obscene gesture.  Seeing the gesture, the first driver is no longer repentant.  Instead he is indignant that this b**** has the gall to flip him off and he drives off disgusted with the petty selfishness and disrespect people have for each other.  What would happen if we took the Golden Rule seriously and assumed that every person is just trying their best to be their best in an often challenging and difficult world?  What if we assumed the best about people instead of the worst?  What if we gave to others the breaks we give to ourselves.  I bump into someone, I made a mistake and should be forgiven.  Someone bumps into me, and he is a jerk.  I forget to return a phone call, and it simply slipped my mind.  Someone forgets to call me and they are undependable and insensitive.  I make a casual unflattering remark about someone, and it is a joke.  Someone does the same to me and they are finally saying what they really feel and mean.  All this is normal, natural… and toxic.  Republicans are selfish aggressors who hate the poor; liberals are godless socialists who hate the country — really?  What might change if our first thought is that we are all wishing/hoping/wanting/working for a better, healthier, happier world?
  6. I am taking the high ground and am superior to those who use insults, disrespect, and put-downs.  Arrogance is not a virtue, no matter how we dress it up.  I received this comment in an email recently that made me laugh.  I referenced someone as small-minded and hateful (who uses the phrase “God hates fags” on a regular basis), and this was the response I got.  “I am not sure why I am wasting my time writing this to you.  It is folly to think that you might comprehend what I am trying to say when you think those who disagree with you are ‘small-minded and hateful’.  You say in many of your blogs that our problem is that we lack civility and act disrespectfully, but then you attack a faithful minister of the gospel as ‘small-minded and hateful’.  Shame on you.  Your hypocrisy is blatant and undermines everything you say.  Name-calling is, as you say, unacceptable.  But people like you are too ignorant and closed-minded to be bothered practicing what you preach.  If you were half as holy as you pretend, you would still be a hypocrite, ignorant and a liar.”  It makes me smile to read it again — not because I like what it says, but it is such a brilliant “pot-calling-the-kettle-black” example.  I actually think the person has a point — that she undermines and weakens — calling someone I disagree with ‘small-minded and hateful’ is not conducive to any kind of meeting of the minds or healing.
  7. I am speaking generally and not targeting anyone in particular, or am speaking in the third person, but they take everything personally and they attack specific individuals.  On my blog, people will often frame their comments in terms of “people who think this way…,” and then they describe me, or say “Dan Dick obviously doesn’t…,” as if they aren’t speaking to me.  Indirectness is a form of “safe” criticism and critique.  Nothing personal, you understand, but in general, people who think like you are nuts/stupid/evil/beneath contempt.  Generally, these responses come from people who are offended, angered, insulted or incredulous, but they again want to take the high road, not cause a debate, but at the same time have the last word.

These are just a few ways that our current zeal for being right is preventing us from being kind, fair, tolerant or loving.  Our own Book of Discipline, the preamble to The Constitution says, “The prayers and intentions of The United Methodist Church and its predecessors, The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren Church, have been and are for obedience to the will of our Lord that his people be one, in humility for the present brokenness of the Church and in gratitude that opportunities for reunion have been given.”  Written at the merger of the two denominations in 1967/1968, the words echo ominously for a church where some call for separation over irreparable schism and disagreement.  I still maintain we are better than this.  The opportunity we have to witness to the world how Christians navigate differences is huge.  It all depends on our willingness to forego the blessing of being right, for the right of being a blessing.

7 replies

  1. Interesting. I have decided to share Critical Conversations with my project managers. Much of what you have presented here is covered in that book. Most notably the “fool’s choice” where you believe you have two choices, and neither is a good choice. There is always another choice, but it takes imagination and giving up being right to get there. One of the things I appreciate from this book is to focus on what you really want and to focus on maintaining the relationship.

  2. Once again, you have spoken truth, Dick. This fits well with a sermon I am preaching soon. May I copy and distribute this piece?

  3. Agree, no one is ever right all of the time. Agree, certainty can be assuring but also a roadblock. Agree, shared assumptions can be problematic. Agree, it is normal to assume intention and meaning. Agree, better assumptions can produce better results. Agree, taking things personally and insisting on have the last word is less than helpful. Agree that zeal for being right can be an obstacle. Agree. Points all taken.

    As pertains to the issue you addressed, the argument fails to persuade. It cannot be resolved by just talking on and on to exhaustion and then finally agreeing to just disagree. It cannot be resolved by doing nothing. It is not unlike when preparing land for planting, you have to deal with the stumps and rocks. If you wait till later, they will still be there. Sooner or later you will have to quite plowing around what you must deal with.

    One may soft pedal the issue you chose as “a deeply complex issue of human existence.” Scripture does not soft pedal it. As with all sin, it is condemned. We can talk about it till we are all blue in the face, but in the end a decision has to be made. Some will decry this as being not kind, fair, tolerant or loving. Some will bemoan this as a failure to be our best. Some may even consider it a privileging of being right over being a blessing. To suppose that right be ignored and wrong embraced in the name of kindness, fairness, tolerance and love is not persuasive. As with rocks and stumps, it is time to stop talking and deal with the issue.

    • Fascinating response! Never did I indicate that we shouldn’t make choices or decisions — simply that we should admit that just because there is a majority or a popularity there is no indication that one side is right and the other wrong. Most arguments against homosexuality are based on horrible theology and an obvious lack of scholarship. The premise being that the partially informed social code of a primitive, pre-modern, non-Western, paternalistic, mythic-magic, pre-scientific culture should have universal and eternal application is widely spread and widely accepted — but that doesn’t make it any more right, true, valid or holy. To say it does is to assert an opinion, which is the point of the piece. Reductionist thinking and erroneous exculpatory claims are as bad as “agreeing to disagree” (which you must admit I never say once in the post). I actually am calling for agreement that none of us know everything and that we should stop acting like we do, but you have every right to disagree with this assertion.

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