On Being Right

A number of recent events have given me occasion to consider what it means to be right.

Viewed through a rationalist filter, humanity can manage itself well (if not easily), provided its curiousity remains strong and its faculties of discernment are not tarnished. This assumes, of course, that humanity as a whole is curious. I am learning, to my dismay, that it is indeed curious, but not at all in the way I thought it was.

It’s clear now that the urge to gossip is ingrained deeply in our social structure, deeper than the more abstracted process of research and reason. Of course, that’s nothing new; there is evidence for this throughout recorded history. In fact, to my (quite limited) knowledge, it was only during the Enlightenment that the mass of Europeans even started to consider that abstract reason was more valuable.

It’s also clear that throughout history, there have been some who, instinctively or deliberately, have known that to feed the gossip channel, as inexact as it might be, is innately more effective than to process and publish data according to the more demanding strictures of what’s become known as the scientific method.

The purpose of gossip is not to find truth; it is to determine, with a finger in the wind, what the prevailing view is among a given group, and according to the vicissitudes of one’s social group, to align oneself accordingly. The purpose of reason, according to the reasoners, anyway, is to allow one access to the facts that will in turn allow one to better understand the world. Gossip cements the individual’s membership in the group, improving their odds of survival. Reason aims to refine the group’s collective ability to survive. They are, in effect, the two faces of a hollow sphere.

These two worlds are not exclusive – not always, anyway. Often common sense frames and guides curiousity, effectively challenging its own tenets. Accumulated, indirect wisdom generates practices that are only later validated by empirical means. Negative effects are just as common, leading people to invest huge amounts of time and effort to empirically prove the unprovable.

But it’s only recently that the practice of wrapping gossip in the rags of reason has become a systematic process. While we have always been a species prone to squabble and natter, never before have we been as adept. There’s no need to recount the means by which consumerism, media and politics have connived, deliberately and accidentally, to subvert rationalism in the public discourse. If you’re reading this, you already know.

What I do want to look at, though, is one facet of this debasement: The shooting of the messenger not merely because the news is unwelcome, but because of the tone of its delivery.

I was reading an online message thread recently, in which a person berated others for their stupidity. How, he ranted, can people be so wilfully blind? He concluded that the majority of people are simply intellectually inferior and bemoaned their right to influence his life.

The next message replied that it was precisely this kind of arrogance that led the admittedly benighted majority to reject him and his kind.

That’s where I jumped in. I wrote:

It’s not arrogance when you’re right.

Now, before you write this off as a flame, hear me out. Throughout history, people with unpopular views have believed that if they could just get the information out, their message would be accepted and acted on.

Elsewhere in this thread, someone said that [a public figure accused of deliberate distortions] was like a street preacher, spouting tales of Armageddon from his soapbox pulpit. That’s not true. He is a cardinal in his robes, descending from on high with the Word.

For the agnostics in the audience, those who can see that prima facie his statements are false, their immediate urge is to point out the untruths. In their world, the right information is all that’s required to correct false reason.

But there is a significant proportion of the population whose world is not ruled by that same empiricism. For those people, it’s more important to follow the appropriate leader than to be right. There are really good reasons to act this way, not the least of which is that it keeps one from being singled out. The only trouble these people experience is shared by everyone. Nonetheless, this drives the empiricists crazy. Their world cannot permit behaviour like this.

Worse, being ‘comfortably wrong’ (i.e. following the dominant mantra even when you know it’s not correct) can prove extremely destructive at times. So the rationalists feel compelled to shout the truth loudly. Problem is, the truth is useless to those who don’t operate in a world driven by logic. This is nothing new; the Iliad tells us about Cassandra, doomed to know the future, and never to be believed.

None of this is to excuse those who rant at the ‘stupidity’ of the majority. Nor is this an attempt to excuse people who will not be swayed by reason. All I’m trying to do is to point out that there are two languages being spoken most of the time. Both may sound like English, but their purposes and means of expression are only close enough to cause confusion.

Again: There is nothing arrogant about being right, and letting the world know it. Arrogance comes when you continue insisting that you’re right long after you’ve been proven wrong.

That observation, unfortunately, does nothing to remove the stigma of arrogance. More importantly, it doesn’t offer any suggestion about how to correct the balance between knowledge and common sense in society, to ensure that the inner and outer surfaces of human thought continue to act as assets for the species.Sure enough, someone immediately fired back with this:

You can be arrogant and right. Being arrogant and right is a pretty quick way of making everyone hate you.

He makes a valid and important point. So how, then, do we find the balance between impatient stridence and reasoned tones that get lost in the noise of gossip? I don’t have any simple answers, but I did offer the following reply:

For countless years, women fighting for equality have had to cope with being characterised as ‘bitches’ whenever they tried to be heard. Why? They were ignored until they shouted so loud that people were forced to take notice.

For countless years, African Americans were persecuted, beaten, murdered for being ‘uppity’. Anyone who spoke out in even the mildest fashion was subject to extreme punishment.

These days, one of the most significant issues in electronic communication is its abuse by people who systematically spread disinformation and suppress truth. The motives for doing so are manifold.

People in a position to know better first assumed that the problem was that others just didn’t have access to the right information. They packaged up the data in the proper format, and presented it to the world. They were largely ignored.

Still believing that the word just wasn’t getting out, they tried harder, spoke a little more forcefully, worked harder at discrediting the other sources.

At a certain point, the rationalist proofs began to seep into the colloquial consciousness, and people started to listen. The propagandists realised that they could not win the argument on merit. So they attacked the source. They ascribed their own dubious motives to others, they made baseless threats. And now, they try to kill the messenger, not because of the message, but because he was shouting when he delivered it.

Your post seems to say, ‘You may be right, but you’re a prick, so nobody’s going to believe you.’ Problem is: Nobody listened before. Sometimes, there’s no option but to be pushy. This fact has given us arrogant pricks from Galileo to Patrick Henry to Martin Luther King.

We can’t forget the lessons of the Enlightenment, nor should we ever lose sight of the humanism that underlies many of its tenets. These teach us that one of the fundamental rights democracy bestows is the right to be dumb. There is, as yet, no way to charge someone with what a friend calls ‘Felony Stupid’.Reason has a great cost. It always has, and it always will. Again, there are valid reasons for the inertia that gossip and so-called common sense bring to bear against it. But when the outer surface of thought is hidden by a thickening rind of wilful ignorance, it becomes necessary to abrade it, in order that new ideas seep in.

There is no pleasant way to do this. There is a difference between ‘polite’ and ‘respectful’, however, between ‘arrogance’ and ‘anger’. Learn them, use them. Accept that it will cost you every time you do. It takes more courage to face down an incredulous acquaintance than a firing squad.

One thought on “On Being Right

  1. This is, itself, a rationalist approach, even anthropological. It leaves out the most important element in the triumph of gossip over reasoned discourse.

    Gossip is far more useful when it comes to living a moral life.

    In Srbija gossip is the most effective communication medium. Whether it is cutting down a neighbour, explaining what *really* happened during the riots, or interpreting the entrails of various political sacrifices, gossip is the engine of Srbijan conversation in the way that the weather is back home.

    One can present a lot of rational explanations: the effect of centuries of repression on communications among the repressed; the rural roots of the population, the majority of whom are at most one generation from Tito’s forced urbanisation; the general need to affirm membership or leadership in a group by being in the know; the desire to enliven a dreary and difficult life with a little Spanish Soap Opera; or, pure human competitiveness — ‘anything you can know, I can know more of’.

    Or you can look at the faces of the gossippers. An almost beatific glow illuminates the purveyor of the latest tidbit, a glow reflected in various degrees in the expressions of the listeners. A sense of satisfaction, of *understanding* grips them.

    I have never seen that glow on even the most committed of rationalists. Far from it: most of them look in conversation as if they are suffering from severe constipation.

    One should remember that the Enlightenment was an elite, and elitist, movement, confined to a small segment of the population educated enough and/or wealthy enough to have the time to indulge in science and philosophy. As economic development spread literacy, it brought anti-Enlightenment reactions, from the Romanticism of the next generation of elites to the anti-intellectualism of the churches, and the traditional hostility of the working classes and the peasantry.

    Rationalists, whether scientific or philosophical, have occasionally been admired for some specific achievement, but more often they have been perceived and portrayed as dry dreamers living in a world far from practical reality. Why?

    Reason and rationalism will never be able to compete with gossip. They require a predilection for the abstract that most of the human race has never had the leisure to develop. They have to respect the limits of the known and the knowable, and go no farther (Dr. Dawkins, take note). Abstract reasoning is hard work. The reward *might* be being right, but then again, it might not be. From any given data set, reason is quite capable of deriving several mutually exclusive conclusions.

    Ask the cosmologists.

    And there is a difference between being scientifically accurate (Galileo) and morally ‘right’ (Dr. King). The facts, whatever they may be, are morally neutral, pax the Inquisition and the Chinese Board of Censors. They exist whether we know them or not, despite what quantum theorists and deconstructionists might say.

    Being scientifically right is inherently amoral: think of fission, the bomb and the medical isotopes. Knowledge is a tool: it can be used to build or to destroy. It is the choice that defines morality.

    Gossip, on the other hand, is inherently moralising. It presents good guys and bad guys, teaches social lessons, and gives both purveyor and listener a deep sense of satisfaction.

    Hence the beatific glow.

    Seen from this perspective, the messenger gets shot not merely for adopting the wrong style, but for raining on the parade. That seems to me to be pretty Felony Stupid.

    Of your examples, I would like to point out that the latter two both died for moral messages, not for scientific accuracy. But before they died, they lit fires that consumed an old order.

    They did this not by presenting the facts, or making rational arguments, but by being masters of rhetoric, by giving their listeners the sense of moral rightness, the satisfaction of a story useful and well told.

    Whether or not Henry and Dr. King were scientifically right, they convinced their societies they were morally right by using the tools not of rational discourse, but of the village green.

    They won by being effective gossips.

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