When cultural tribes get as polarized as ours, progress will only resume when the tribes that are wrong eat their humble pie, back down and shut up.
And you know who you are.
We all know which tribes should back down. Trouble is, we disagree about which tribes they are. My tribe thinks the tribes that hate us are wrong and should back down, which, for them is but one more reason they hate us, think we’re wrong and should back down.
Still, maybe we can agree about a few some basics about right and wrong. At least I’d like to propose some common ground:
- Right and wrong are real, but we can’t know them for certain in advance: Right and wrong are defined by outcomes. Today’s right and wrong answers depend on tomorrow’s outcomes, which by definition aren’t available today. If you claim today to already know what will have proven right and wrong tomorrow, you’re blowing at least a little rhetorical smoke.
- We can talk about who’s wrong or right, but only if we mean who will have proven wrong or right tomorrow: By this standard “I’m right” translates as “I bet that tomorrow my bet will have proven to be the better one,” which isn’t nearly as satisfying a translation as “I’m infallible.” Live with it.
- On controversial matters, we really can’t know: What’s the right answer to the latest controversy? If the answer were obvious there wouldn’t be controversy, and even if it were obvious, it could still prove wrong, as so much conventional wisdom does. On matters of intense debate, if you claim to already know what’s absolutely right and wrong, you’re blowing more than a little rhetorical smoke.
- Neither might nor meek makes right: Some controversies aren’t real but stoked by the mighty--well-heeled factions that stir dissent to squelch a general consensus (the oil industry stirring fake controversy about the climate crisis, for example). The mightiness of these well-heeled factions doesn’t make them right. Or wrong necessarily either, as the meek sometimes claim in retaliation, as though to be squelched is to be proven right. Neither the meek nor the mighty inherit the earth. The right inherit the earth, unless the wrong become so mighty they take everyone down with them. Don’t assume that winning or losing means you’re necessarily right.
- Our default: All right makes right: Like fish in water we take our givens for granted. Our culture’s assumptions are like the water we swim in, the comfort zone we occupy, oblivious of the comfort it supplies so reliably. Any cultural habit or assumption that seems to be working all right, just fine, A-OK is going to be assumed right, and will go un-noticed, and certainly unquestioned, at least until some outsider questions it. When outsider do challenge our assumptinos, they’re attacking our tribe, not just us, and no way are we going to let anyone push us around. That’s when the fights start and the mighty and meek start claiming they’re right based on how they’re doing in the fight. Remember, where you stand depends on where you sit, and mostly on where you sit most comfortably. We all tend to think that if it’s working fine for us today it must be right. But that’s not true. What works well for you today may not be working well for most people and may well not work tomorrow either.
- Common sense doesn’t make right: Common sense is inherently simplifying, even lazy sense, sense that interprets correlations and causality as direct and immediate when they are often way more labyrinthine than that. We shouldn’t reject common sense, or assume that the counter-intuitive or opposite of common sense is right. But we should never assume that because something appeals to our lazy intuitions it’s going to prove right. A whole lot of common sense hasn’t proved right.
- Thinking for ourselves is a myth: We are born into divergent cultures. By the time we’re old enough to think for ourselves we’re already acculturated and therefore can no longer really think for ourselves, free from all cultural influences. If you claim that you come by your beliefs through your pure and independent powers of reason about bare facts, again, you’re blowing some rhetorical smoke and embarrassingly so. You’re basically saying “Look, I know I’m right, ‘cause I checked several times, and each time I dicovered I agreed with myself.” Yeah, right.
- Who’s right and who’s wrong is more a matter of luck than smarts: Just your luck (or anyone’s), you could have been born into a culture that’s committed to beliefs that are about to prove very wrong. Just your luck, being smart and social you figured out how to fit right in.
- The folks who have proven wrong sometimes deserve more credit than folks who prove right: Think of acumen like wealth. Rich people aren’t necessarily more self-made than poor ones. The rich could have inherited a great head start. The poor, struggling to raise them selves out of poverty may have worked much harder. Likewise if you’re born into a tribe that believes wrong things, and scramble hard to rise out of it, you could still end up further from the right answers than people born passive into a tribe that believes right things. As the poet Philip Larkin said, “An only life can take so long to climb clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never.”
- Being wrong can be like being diagnosed with terminal cancer, and in some ways is worse: Imagine dedicating the best years of your life to the wrong cause, and unlucky you, realizing it before it’s too late. Lost years, lost decades, like being told your life is going to be cut short, or perhaps worse, since they were prime cuts taken from your healthiest younger years, and you’ll have years ahead to face your folly. Finding out you’re wrong is like some true believer, certain he was going to heaven, getting to the pearly gates and being told he was routed to hell instead. None of us are good at admitting that our big bets were wrong. No one loves the truth that much. Not even you.
- A meaningful life is, by definition a risky gamble: You can’t find meaning in everything, only in particular things, some more meaningful than others. Even if the meaning you find is a campaign to convince people that they should find meaning in everything, that too holds one idea more meaningful than others, for example than the idea that we should each find our calling and specialize. Well, if meaning comes from particular commitments and any commitment could prove wrong, welcome to the fun house. There are trap doors everywhere and your life’s work could prove a fool’s errant.
- Surrender bravely like a scientist: Scientists worth their salt commit themselves to lifelong work based on theories and assumptions they know, going in, are bets that could prove wrong, good bets that may eventually be beat by better bets. We’re all like scientists in that we all commit to theories and hypothesis that could prove wrong. The big difference is that some face that risk and surrender to it. Others not so much. They pretend that they’ve found beliefs so true that no further evidence ever be considered. When they say “I’m right,” they mean “I’m infallible about this.” In that they’re wrong.