Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Importance of Being Wrong

In my last post, I emphasized that humanity must be able to objectively look at the world around it and piece together some basic truths about how the world works. We can't live in a veiled universe that refuses to let us access it; which is not to say that it is possible to know everything.

On the other hand, people are wired to see what they want to see. Many people only read books, or listen to speakers, or pundits, or politicians who already agree with their own preconceived ideas. When we do that, it makes us confident that we have a grounding for our particular pet ideas. Consensus, especially within a group of people whom we admire, makes us secure in our own positions.

"Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation."
--Oscar Wilde

I wish that quote wasn't true....but it is. When we find someone who can communicate ideas effectively and is charismatic, who appeals to our own emotions and intellect, who speaks and we simultaneously nod our heads, that person can pass on their ideas in a rapid way throughout a community of similarly oriented people. If one trolls the internet long enough, you'll see this in every quarter of it. There are a few wave-makers who write opinion pieces who are then quoted and linked to by hundreds and thousands of other people. You can go from site to site and read the posts and comments, in whatever niche of the internet which you are exploring, and you will inevitably hear the same ideas, talking points, even identical phrases used over and over again.

If it's the lefty blogs, there will always be someone referencing Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck as troglodytes, or tearing them apart. If it's the right-y blogs, Obama will surely be called a Kenyan Socialist trying to destroy the country with Obamacare. Every. Single. Time.

Perhaps this has been made worse by the sheer ease of transmitting ideas through the internet. Anyone, anywhere has access to almost any site. The opinions of a few can easily be disseminated and easily be repeated. For better or worse, the internet can operate as a Hive Mind, communicating with all the worker bees without even consciously trying to.

Keeping that in mind, and seeing the evidence all around us that people have a difficult time stepping outside of their own subjective, conceptual worlds, then wouldn't it be true to say that people, in general, are not objective, that we truly are blinded to opposing views and reality in some ways? Or that we are easily led and influenced?

Yes. That is true. The difference is that there is hope that we can overcome that subjectivity, that with enough information, and exposure and experimentation, we can learn a few things and maybe even change our minds.

I have personally come to suspect that the only way to begin trying to be more objective is to be completely wrong about something; wrong in an area that you never questioned, wrong in a way that you wouldn't have predicted, wrong in a significant way. Of course, being wrong isn't enough. You have to experience and recognize that wrongness for it to do any good.

"It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong."
--GK Chesterton

When you have the experience of realizing that you were flat-out wrong about an issue, or a person, or your own chosen actions you have a transformative moment....or you should have a transformative moment! ;-)

This is what is called repentance--recognizing your own proclivities for sin, or bad choices, or pride, or misunderstanding. People who understand the depths of their own failures and limitations are people who can excuse the same in others. People who never consider how similar they are to their foes are people who will never be objective.

These are two cornerstone concepts in Christianity; repentance and empathy.

Repentance provides a way of orienting yourself in relation to yourself and God and others and empathy is a way of recognizing that everyone else is in the same boat.

Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us....

With the measure you use, it will be measured to you...

Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy...

Identifying our own blind spots allows us to try to work around them, and knowing that we have them brings us a step closer to a type of objectivity.

In order to spiritually mature, we have to be willing to admit defeat, admit the possibility that we can be wrong.

If we can do that in our relationships with the help of our religious beliefs, then we should be able to do it politically and scientifically. When the world proves out pet ideas wrong, the correct response is not to fight harder against the possibility but to simply admit that we were wrong and try a different way.

My point is not that we need to repent, repent, repent. My point is that Christianity has an expectation that we should be able to see the world around us and incorporate new information to further our understanding. The criticisms aimed at the Pharisees and Saducees in the gospels frequently revolved around their inability to let go of particular views and be open to what they saw around them.

The principle is still solid. It isn't enough for us to know what we think and why and be able to explain it. It is a necessary aspect of life that we need to to be able to re-evaluate our stances in light of what we see and experience.


james said...

From Oliver Cromwell's letter to the General Assembly of the Kirk in Scotland:
"I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."
That would make a better motto above this little box than "Leave your comment," but Blogger probably won't agree.

DH said...

One of my textbooks from a past course discussed this. It was on the topic of understanding those from different cultural backgrounds. The author argued that much of the cross-cultural communication and understanding problems we face aren't due to stereotypes, as stereotypes are a natural way for us to try to make sense or order out of things of which we have limited understanding, but rather the rigidity with which we hold those stereotypes and our unwillingness to adjust them when confronted with new information.

Arguably the same is true in ever facet of our lives. Cognitively we form models, or stereotypes, to try to explain information around us, but when confronted with something that does not fit the convenient confines of that stereotype we have a choice. We can ignore the new information and dogmatically hold to our previous beliefs, or we can adapt or cognitive model, or stereotype, to accommodate the new information. Doing the latter is difficult, however, as it requires, as you describe, admitting that our previously held beliefs were wrong.

Pride comes in when we think so highly of ourselves that we believe we could not possibly be mistaken or off the mark. Humility enters when we realize that either due to ignorance, prejudice, or laziness we have misconceived, or incompletely conceived, the world around us and that we need to adjust our beliefs.