What’s Wrong with Being Right? 5 Facts that Might Surprise You.

[Part 2 in the Truth, a Love Letter blog series]

In the last post of this series, I explained why religion is so divisive. A big reason is that it involves truth; this means your goal is to be right which means you’re going to call those whose conclusions contradict yours wrong. So here’s the question examined in this blog post: Is it wrong to love being right? I believe any attempt to learn and promote truth will be met in modern society with some suspicion. This is because it’s my perception that society has become increasingly “postmodern”. That’s a broad term; I use it simply as follows.

Postmodernism is a philosophy which rejects at least one of the following:

  • Truth is attainable.
  • It is valuable to possess truth and worthwhile to seek it.
  • Truth can be conveyed from one person to another.
  • People should discuss propositions with the goal of the parties coming to agree with the truth.
  • Truth exists independently of all human minds.

This post is not an attack on postmodernism, but a survey of some facts about being right that may surprise those living in a society influenced by postmodernism. These five facts apply not only to people who love being right about religion specifically, but about those who love being right in general.

Fact #1. Loving being right doesn’t mean you hate being proven wrong. We have all experienced people who love being right but hate being proven wrong…right? But do those people really love being right or is there something else going on there? To explore this question, allow me to introduce you to Jim and Bob.

Jim is happy in step #1, but he has one red dot in his thought bubble of green dots. In step #2, Jim finds out about his red dot and is distressed. In step #3, he changes his red dot from red to green and so is back to being happy.
Bob is happy in step #1, but he has one red dot in his thought bubble of green dots. In step #2, Bob finds out about his red dot and is angry. In step #3, he changes his red dot from red to green but is still angry.

These two work for a company that makes drum sets and they’re giving a presentation about how, based on the data they’ve crunched and the reports they’ve run, the company is going to run out of drumsticks before the year is up. In step #1, Jim and Bob are both happy as ever; they think everything they’re presenting is true. But, as you can see by their thought bubbles, although they have lots of truth in their presentation (green dots), there is one thing they got wrong (red dot).

Leading up to step #2, Jim and Bob are confronted by a co-worker, Susie, who points out their wrong belief. Although they got so many of the facts right, they incorrectly presented the warehouse as being empty of drumsticks and only the storefronts as having any supply. She is the warehouse supervisor and knows for a fact that they are well stocked. After she points this out to them, Jim and Bob move to step #2. As you can see above, they both have different reactions, but both reactions are unpleasant. Neither of them are very happy at this stage. They have both made themselves vulnerable by making their beliefs known. They have both operated under a, now apparently, false belief. They’ve spent time and effort based on this false belief. Step #2, for anyone, is a bit shocking; we understandably feel exposed and foolish. So why the difference between Jim and Bob?

Jim is experiencing some discomfort in step #2 due to the reasons above. But, since he loves being right his mindset in step #2 is one of reorienting. He is figuring out what to do with the new information and whether it really is right. Once this is done, Jim is now back to his favorite state in step #3: being right. He is elated to have removed one more false belief and added one more right belief to his arsenal. He’s a better employee because of it. He has a deeper understanding of the workings of the company because of it. He knows more now than he did before! He will almost certainly thank Susie for bringing this to his attention.

What about Bob? Bob’s reaction in step #2-3 is more how we might typically imagine someone who loves being right when they’re proven wrong. But here is the crucial point that distinguishes him from Jim: Bob loves appearing right. Whatever Bob thinks about being right aside, his love for his image of appearing right trumps his love for actually being right (i.e., having correct beliefs).

Notice these three differences between Jim and Bob’s thought processes:

  • Jim’s thoughts in step #2 are “Uh-oh, maybe I’ve thought wrongly about this”.
  • Bob’s thoughts in step #2 are “Uh-oh, I’m going to be seen as having been wrong about this unless I can convince them otherwise”.
  • Jim’s thoughts are on his beliefs.
  • Bob’s thoughts are on himself.
  • Jim’s problem is resolved by changing his belief. Involving other people is optional and would just serve to get him further information on the subject.
  • Bob’s problem is unlikely to be resolved at all and his closest possible solution is absolutely dependent on the people involved taking the course of action he desires.

These points of difference make it clear why, in step #3, Jim is able to actually be glad he was proven wrong. Because he was proven wrong on a certain belief of his, he can now change his belief and thus enjoy actually being right. Bob, on the other hand, no matter what, has already lost what he really desires: a perfect image in the eyes of others. Even if he can convince his audience that he is right, he can never get back the fact that, even for a moment, he was seen as being wrong. Therefore, Bob hates being proven wrong, but it’s because he doesn’t really care about actually being right. Bob’s love of seeming right is a desire wholly unattached from and independent of the truth. It also means he is likely to have a desire to manipulate those around him.

Fact #2. Loving being right doesn’t mean you love proving others wrong. Keep in mind the distinction just made above in fact #1. Someone like Bob, who loves seeming right, will naturally strive to prove others wrong. You cannot be seen as right unless those who contradict you are seen as being wrong. On the other hand, if you have less interest in how you appear to others than you do actually being right, the dynamic is different. In this case, you certainly are likely to engage in discussions and may even enter heated debates. The motivation, however, for the person who loves being right, is for both parties to come away with more truth and understanding. People who love being right naturally want others to agree with them; what loving person would wish false beliefs on someone else? But they don’t necessarily desire to place their own intellect or reputation above anyone else’s. And if, in the end, they could not convince someone else to adopt the truth, it is no bother; someone like Jim will be content so long as he himself has true beliefs, has done what he can to test those beliefs against his opponent’s, and has done his part to present the truth to the best of his ability. His real love in life, being right, is not threatened in the least by the failure to convince his opponent.

Fact #3. Loving being right doesn’t mean you place a low value on what others think. Just because Jim wants to fill his bubble with green dots doesn’t mean he’s automatically going to imagine everyone else’s bubble is filled with lots of red dots and that they therefore have nothing interesting or important to say. Just look at what happened when Susie pointed out one of his red dots. He satisfied his great desire for being right by changing that dot from red to green! That meant he had to take what she said seriously and really listen for what she believed and why. Also, remember fact #2; Jim isn’t necessarily interested in changing Susie’s mind all the time. Her bubble’s green/red ratio doesn’t affect his. If she has many wrong beliefs and won’t listen to reason, so what? His goal is unaffected by her bubble. This frees him to listen to Susie seriously and take interest in her thoughts without ulterior motive.

Fact #4. Loving being right can help your relationships grow more fulfilling and meaningful. Imagine Susie has to see both Bob and Jim at work often. What will her relationships with them be like? What is likely to happen when a decision must be made or a problem solved? Bob would probably leave Susie out of things. By doing this, Bob gets all the credit and doesn’t have to humble himself by asking for help. After all, he doesn’t care about being right, only appearing right. What about Jim, will his relationship with Susie suffer just because he is enamored with being right? Of course not! He, unlike Bob, is likely to closely involve Susie in his decisions. He will seek her thoughts, share his own, and allow space for them to challenge each other gently but honestly. Between the two and their process of mutual answer-seeking, they may come to an agreement. They may, of course, end up disagreeing. But if the disagreement is about the answer itself and not a matter of disrespecting or devaluing the other person, their the relationship will actually grow.

All relationships have their ups and downs, but if Susie is anything like Jim, three things will likely happen due to their love of being right:

  1. Their relationship will be stronger because they exercise their disagreeing muscles with each other and risk having arguments.
  2. Their relationship will be more interesting because they are learning more about each other and learning deeper details. They will have more to talk about because there are no “off-limit” restrictions on subjects that may cause passionate disagreement.
  3. Their relationship will be more intimate because they show vulnerability by exposing their own views and perhaps contradicting the other person’s. They likely have to talk about feelings and personal motivations. Also, they show care for the other person’s thoughts.

Fact #5. Loving being right can be a practice in humility and submission. I have already shown in facts #1-4 how loving being right means you are going to love finding your red dots; this means you’re going to become very intimate with the ways in which you are prone to error and your inability to figure everything out on your own. You will likely have a high value of others and what they have to offer you on your search for truth. In addition to those four facts, there’s another reason why loving being right can be an act of humility and submission: truth already exists, no man created it, we can only be aligned to it. Truth can be thought of as something that is not discovered by cunning means but rather that which we merely recognize and respond to. One can take the attitude of “I don’t care what I wish was true, I just want to recognize the truth for what it is.” Sometimes this involves forsaking complex systems of thought that we’ve spent a lot of time constructing in order to recognize a simple truth. Sometimes it involves believing something we wish were otherwise. Loving being right means that no matter what it means for you, for your identity, or what it will take to respond to it, you submit your conflicting desires to the way things are. And this is an act of deep humility.

So much for there being anything wrong with being right. People who love being right aren’t necessarily self-centered monsters. The trick is to love being right more than you love yourself. Let your love of truth be greater than your pride and all five of these facts will apply. I hope that, after the last blog post about the divisiveness involved in seeking religious truth, these facts will encourage and embolden you to take the risk of being right. If you remain steady on your path, you will weather the storm of your own uncertainty and the judgment and scrutiny of others. Take the risk and keep your eyes on the prize: not your own image but your proper alignment to the truth.

Please share this post to encourage those in your life to engage in truth-oriented conversations and to do so with grace!

[To learn more about Postmodernism in philosophy and culture, check out this introductory text. To learn A LOT more, check out this anthology text.]

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