Chun: In Case We’re Wrong

by Steven Chun | 5/16/16 5:30pm

Dartmouth never makes for boring dinner conversation. A recent heated Foco debate ended in a statement of unanimous resignation — “everybody wants to be right.” In a conversation in which no one could agree, it was the one universally accepted truth. Everybody — at the table and here on campus — stands by their views precisely because they believe them to be right. Of course, no one backs views they find faulty. But there are multiple sides to any debate, and unless you subscribe to some exceedingly extreme and annoying form of relativism, that means someone is wrong. What if that’s you?

Seriously consider this, if just for the novelty: your most cherished beliefs are objectively incorrect. That ideal you’ve been pursuing? Maybe you’re right, but you’re really mucking up how you’re going about it. The foundations of your worldview? Totally made up — you’re not only wrong, but so hilariously incorrect that you’ll be a colored side panel meant to liven up a history book. In reality, you’re probably not that wrong. Remember, I’m not suggesting that you’re wrong, just that you ask yourself if you might be wrong. Because there’s a difference. We’ve got plenty of people proselytizing the wrongness of others. We’re swimming in righteous certainty, but what we need is more doubt.

No evidence of our beliefs is watertight. Crowds are certainly no measure of correctness. The tyranny of the masses is often the folly of the masses. Extensive government polling of the West Coast was one of the more compelling reasons for the implementation of Japanese-American internment camps. They found widespread animosity towards Japanese-Americans all over the West Coast, and indeed the voice of the people called for the imprisonment of a whole group of innocent people on the basis of our worst instincts of fear and mistrust. In an election cycle in which populist candidates have surged forward on both sides, it’s important to remember that the vote of the people has and will continue to err. And while we’re on the topic of politics, it’s important to note that brand certainly doesn’t convey any credence to your beliefs. If you think that Democrats are generally always right and certainly preferable to Republicans, then I would find it prudent to ask you your views on slavery and secession. I think it’s useful to look at these historical examples. In a different timeframe you find that people who wore your same labels and voted with your same passion and were utterly wrong. And if they were, you can be too.

But what if your views are backed by science? It’s one of the safer bets for correctness, I concede. But even then, there’s room for doubt. This is a dangerous thing to say when climate change denial shortens humanity’s rapidly shrinking window to avoid global catastrophe, but even science makes mistakes ­— if only occasionally. Before you flaunt your scientific consensus, remember that until 1973 you would could have been waving around the second edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” which still listed homosexuality as a mental illness. That’s the issue. No matter what the issue, no matter what the time period, you could be wrong in serious and damaging ways. And it’s simply not productive to emphasize that about other people anymore, it needs to be a personal consideration.

It’s very possible and very productive to doubt yourself. In a seemingly singular and unique display in politics, House Speaker Paul Ryan highlighted his own faulty beliefs, saying to a group of Washington interns, “There was a time when I would talk about a difference between ‘makers’ and ‘takers’ in our country [...] But as I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized I was wrong. ‘Takers’ wasn’t how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, just trying to take care of her family[...] And to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong.”

On the other side, Nicholas Kristof’s opinion piece, “A Confession of Liberal Intolerance,” reveals fascinating revelations about the makeup of American universities. I believe that the digestion and thought required by writing encourages this type of self-reflection ­— I know, smug coming from an opinion columnist. But curiously, I also find that remarkably little discourse on this campus actually occurs through thought-out arguments and prose. Writing forces you to taste your own ideas, before you serve them up to someone else. Of course, I might be wrong — someone has to be.