Wanting to be Wrong

Benedict Evans recently tweeted the following: “Do not discuss things with people who do not accept disagreement, and do not correct people who do not care if they’re wrong.”

I can’t image why anyone would not care if they’re wrong. Personally, there are so many things about which I hope I’m wrong. My advice to you, Vera, is this: long to be wrong. Believe in your own fallibility.

I concede this is something many people can’t get their heads around. They are so intent on being right about everything. And they are so certain. Whether they truly are, in the deep recesses of their minds, I can’t be sure. But it’s obvious they are very intent upon projecting rightness and certainty to the rest of the world.

In a way, I envy them. On one level, it must be comforting to live in a world of certitude. But on another level, it’s apparent it’s a delusion. Or worse.

Having lived for more than six decades now, it’s impossible for me to conclude anything but the following concerning rightness and wrongness: our understanding is imperfect at best — flawed you might say. Sometimes it’s mildly flawed; other times it’s deeply flawed. But it’s never perfect. The inherent limitations on our ability to discern and reason — to know and understand — preclude perfection.

George Soros once observed, “We cannot rely on reason alone. Rationality has its uses, but it also has its limitations.” We need to rely, in part, on what Soros calls “beliefs.” I prefer to call them “opinions.”

Yet we like to believe in the perfection of understanding and the infallibility of our judgments. Just listen to the way we speak. And the way we claim to know things about which we can’t possibly be well informed.

Often, I simply don’t know. And, sometimes, I simply want to be wrong.

The best I can do is make an educated guess. The line between reality and perception (limited as it is) seems awful blurry to me. I wonder why the line seems so clear to others.

There are few facts in my world, yet many opinions and beliefs. Some are firmly held; some are only loosely held; and many others fall somewhere in between.

Frequently, I can’t even muster an informed opinion. I simply don’t have enough facts. Or ability. Whatever the reason, I simply can’t reason myself to a confident place, much less to a defensible stronghold that does not allow for the possibility of being wrong.

So here I am mired in a world of uncertainty and ambiguity. I’m left to make my best guesses on the basis of limited evidence while attempting to identify and limit the influence of my biases, prejudices and cognitive constraints, knowing that complete rationality is a pipe dream. And, sometimes, I am left with disquieting conclusions, desperately hoping that my discomfort will be resolved, in the end, by being wrong — very wrong.

Of course, I don’t think I’ll be proven wrong about certain things. If I did, I’d change my mind. No one holds opinions they think are fundamentally flawed. Or at least I don’t think we do.

Some might say, see, you think you’re right, too. And, as with most people, I frequently do. But let’s not fool ourselves: There is a world of difference between thinking you know incontrovertible facts and not caring if you’re wrong and holding a well-reasoned opinion and being open to the possibility of being wrong.

Our society seems to have an abundance of the former these days. You can spot them by their language and tone. It’s a language of arrogance, offense and, sometimes, simple-mindedness. They don’t want to wrestle with the questions. There is such absoluteness and harshness in their proclamations. Indeed, it’s not apparent the concept of opinion has any place in their world. They seem to believe their opinions are fact, simply because they’re theirs. These people don’t care if they’re wrong. They don’t seem to relish struggling with the questions.

I struggle with having some friends and family of this ilk. It’s hard to maintain those relationships when you’re kicked in the teeth by them on a regular basis, often from a distance (Facebook is a tool often used to deliver their offensive barbs). I suppose they might not intend offense. Yet offense it is.

When a person suggests (or explicitly claims) that people who hold contrary political or religious views are “anti-American” or aren’t entitled to live in their country, it’s highly offensive. I never understood why certain people think they own this country or have a special entitlement to it. Perhaps they should spend some time with native Americans (or perhaps I’m using the word “Americans” improperly).

Perhaps the antidote is simpler than that, though. Perhaps they simply should want to be wrong about certain things. In my experience, there isn’t anything wrong with wanting to be wrong.

The first time it dawned on me that I truly wanted to be wrong about something fundamental occurred to me in the years leading up to an event in West Chester, Pennsylvania. At the time I was attending divinity school part time with the possible objective of going into the ministry. I didn’t start out with that objective in mind. I took my first course at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary because I was interested in learning more — in digging deeper into the text of the Bible and trying to learn more about the human condition and our spiritual lives. The path that began in Pittsburgh eventually took me to the licensed (not ordained) ministry and two-thirds of the way to getting a divinity degree.

So here I was one Sunday morning at the West Chester Baptist Church (American not Southern Baptist, for goodness sake). I was filling in for our vacationing pastor. The topic was nonviolence.

I was reared in an Anabaptist faith tradition (Church of the Brethren, one of the three historic peace churches) that believed followers of Christ should not bear arms or take another’s life, not even in war. Well, the tradition believed it; not all of its members did. In fact, by now (post Nazi Germany), especially in certain parts of the country (such as Virginia), quite a few members of this tradition had rejected nonviolence as a fundamental principle. But I digress.

I had not mindlessly accepted my tradition’s teachings about nonviolence. Rather, I had struggled with the issue, studied the text and history, and probed the position from every angle imaginable. I had even put together an extensive research outline on the topic. In the end, however, the conclusion was inescapable to me: disciples of Jesus should not kill; disciples of Christ should not participate in wars.

I hoped I was wrong. I still hope I’m wrong. And perhaps I am. But I don’t think so. Yet I also think my understanding is far from complete or perfect. And I’m even less certain that it matters what I think.

So here I was this Sunday morning in West Chester sharing, in the context of a sermon, the results of my discernment process. And then I got it. I soon felt the sting of some fellow congregants who disagreed. They were vicious and unmerciful. They did not care if they were wrong.

Perhaps it was then I first realized how some people cannot entertain the thought of being wrong. And perhaps it was here I first experienced the incredible meanness some people can direct towards any “brother or sister in Christ” who dares question a firmly help opinion or belief.

We experienced similar meanness in Virginia, albeit having nothing to do with this issue. It took me a long time to learn this lesson, but I finally got it: if you want to experience some of the worst of humanity, hang around some of our churches.

It was then I also learned another valuable lesson: wanting to be wrong can be liberating.

So here we are today. Friends and family in our country are being mean to degrees that were unimaginable not long ago. America is becoming an ugly place. We’ve even gone so far as to nominate for president a man who brags about his ugliness. Of course, he doesn’t say it’s ugly. But measured against every traditional metric, it’s ugliness to the nth degree. And many of us love it.

I hope I’m wrong about him. I sincerely do. I hope my friends and family who support this man turn out to the right. I am more than willing to be 100% wrong.

I also hope I’m wrong about Jesus. I hope he really didn’t mean what he said, or didn’t actually expect his disciples to follow in his footsteps. Or that he was misquoted. Or perhaps it doesn’t matter what he said or thought. Perhaps his disconcerting teachings were merely the musings of a naive, misguided philosopher. Some people act and speak as they know for sure. They don’t. They can’t.

There are some other things about which I hope I’m wrong.

I hope, for your sake, Vera, and for the sake of your offspring, I’m wrong about the role the burning of fossil fuels plays in global warming and the potential consequences from the warming of our planet attributable to such activities.

I hope I’m wrong about our formal educational system. I hope schools are better than they seem, and I hope that not nearly as many college professors will end up losing their jobs and not nearly as many colleges will end up closing as it seems likely to me (although the events of the past five years suggest I’m not wrong about this).

I hope I’m wrong about the consequences of our current public policy decisions, especially our decisions to not invest in infrastructure (our roads, bridges, airports, electrical grid, fiber optic network, etc.), and to tolerate gross economic inequality in our society.

I hope I’m wrong about the likely consequences of our society’s addiction to debt (corporate, household and public).

I hope I’m wrong about the damage that will be done to persons, families and taxpayers as a result of our decisions to not adequately fund our public and private pension plans.

I hope I’m wrong about Putin, Netanyahu, and Ali Khamenei. And Donald Trump. And Hillary Clinton. And the role money plays in politics. I hope I’m surprised to the upside.

I hope I’m wrong about the probable consequences of the culture of demonization that has taken root in America.

I hope I’m wrong about some of my friends and family. I hope that, notwithstanding their language, they don’t truly despise everyone who holds opinions or beliefs contrary to theirs. If they do, it appears I have fewer friends than I thought.

There is a lot about which I hope I’m wrong.

Sometimes I grow weary of living in an uncertain, ambiguous world.

Sometimes, I long for the days I could sit in a pew and believe things were as simple and neat as the preacher said they were. Or listen to a politician or fellow citizen and believe the answers were as simple as he or she says they are.

But those days are gone.

Life has taught me that things are simple, just not in the ways we’re led to believe.

Moreover, life has taught me that the power of reason is not as great as we like to believe and that understanding is indeed imperfect.

But perhaps I’m wrong about that, too.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Wanting to be Wrong

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