Allowing yourself to be wrong

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Having a conversation requires all the participants to be listening, but having a fruitful conversation often requires something more: The possibility that someone will leave the exchange with their mind changed. If not that, at least with some doubt as to whether their convictions are justified. Or, perhaps more typically, the sort of conversation that simply makes you want to have more of them, just like that one.

Part of having fruitful conversations has to do with tone, the focus of last week’s column, but a second aspect is some measure of intellectual humility – in other words, allowing for the possibility that you could be wrong, even with regard to strongly held beliefs.

The types of comment we often see online, below columns and blog posts, and on discussion forums, show little evidence that the commenter has any interest in engaging with the possibility that they might be wrong. Instead, one gets the sense that some trigger word or broad concept that they are passionate about serves as an excuse to simply say the same thing they’ve said in other comments, and at countless dinner tables over the years – regardless of how germane it is to this particular column, or this particular publication.

Often, they sound angry and dismissive, as if it’s both inconceivable and infuriating that others cannot see the truth that they do. And while the conversational logjam can sometimes be broken, it’s more often the case that one party simply gives up on trying. While this is a pity, it is also perfectly understandable. None of us want to waste our time fighting lost causes, especially when the rewards are likely to be slight.

I am not intending to exonerate those that are responsible for starting these conversations. Columnists, bloggers and Tweeters can, and often do, exhibit the same sort of narrow-mindedness and intellectual arrogance. It would be unsurprising if – soon after you read this – someone leaves a comment accusing me of exactly this. I would not be able to dismiss that charge out of hand either, as much as I might like to.

We’re a work in progress, but perhaps we sometimes forget just how much work there is to be done. Perhaps we also forget about some of the tools that can help us get that work done – the abovementioned humility, something like the principle of charity, and doing one’s best to avoid prejudice and bias in interpreting the arguments of others. And, of course, a commitment to reaching the best justified conclusion, whether or not it agrees with the one you started out with.

I’ve spent the past week in Olso, at the World Humanist Congress. Here, I’ve met many people who are better people than me, at least in terms of their commitment to fairness, affirming the dignity of others and so forth. I’ve met people who have every right to be very angry, because they lost a daughter or son just three weeks ago, at the hand of someone who could see no possibility of being wrong.

These words make me uncomfortable, but I have to say that these people are inspirational. Not because they are clever, or well-read, but often because they are not, and because they know it. Or rather, because they know that they could always be better read, or more careful thinkers, or more considerate of the unintended harms their actions might cause to others.

Of course, South Africans are not in the comfortable position that Norwegians (usually) find themselves in. We have more to disagree on and more to be angry about, but we make those disagreements worse when we expect the worst of each other – when we decide, in advance, that someone has a vested interest, an immovable ideological commitment, or unshakeable malice towards us. Worse still, it sometimes seems the case that nothing can shake those preconceptions, and everything the person says is interpreted as confirming our presumptions.

This is what it is to be immune to correction or learning. This is to treat others and their opinions as intrinsically, and inescapably, inferior to you and yours. And this is to preclude any possibility of growth as people, and as a society.

I’m not arguing for Oprah’s warm and fuzzy world. There is plenty of room, and plenty of justification, for strong language and strong disagreement. At some point in a conversation, whether online or physical, it might be justified to regard your interlocutor as a troll or as wilfully obstinate. But these occasions are perhaps rarer than we think, and we are sometimes too quick to give up on trying communicating with each other.

It’s not compulsory to have an opinion on everything, and it’s not essential to always be right. And while we should try to keep each other honest, we should try to avoid doing so in a way that’s too quick to assume that our views are the obviously superior ones.

Because of course they are superior, at least to us. And this is partly why we hold that view, rather than another. It’s not always the case that we objectively believe our view to be the most justified – we sometimes present it as such simply because it is ours, because someone is threatening it, and because we think that our viewpoints define who we are.

And yes, they do, at least to some extent. But there’s something else that can contribute to defining us, and which arguably better allows the self to improve over time. Allowing oneself to be wrong, and enthusiastically hunting down the ways in which we might be wrong – rather than the ways in which we are right – might well be character traits worth paying more attention to.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.