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flaminga in salzburg

October 2012

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flaminga in salzburg

the right to be wrong

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a very pretty document, which in its sixty year history has had almost no discernable effect on either governmental policies or individual lives. In 1948 it was aspirational; today it is mostly a list of what we as a species have failed to guarantee for ourselves and one another. Nonetheless, it is worth the occasional read, if only as a reminder that there are thoughtful and (at least nominally) broadly accepted notions of human rights that do not begin with freedom of religion and end with freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, and do not mention bearing arms even a little bit.

Upon reading it today, I found myself reflecting on a right which (like so many others) is sadly under-recognized nowadays: the right to be wrong. Although not stated in as many words, it can clearly be found in Articles 18 (Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief…) and 19 (Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference…). The right to be wrong is not necessarily one of the most crucial ones on the list in terms of people’s welfare, but it’s important because it touches on something fundamentally human. There are certain things that everyone has in common – hunger, laughter, complicated relationships with their parents – and also on that list is being wrong. Everyone, everywhere, at every time, is wrong about something, and most likely about a vast number of things ranging from the metaphysical nature of the universe to their best friend’s favorite ice cream flavor. Our brains have innate perceptual and cognitive biases which systematically distort our understanding of the world, and on top of that we’re not always all that bright. Our hopes and fears and desires color our judgments. Our memories are unreliable, and people lie to us, and we have a surprising capacity to believe two entirely contradictory things at the same time. This doesn’t mean that being wrong is somehow to be celebrated – it just means it’s a condition for which we should all be able to have sympathy, a continual reminder of our shared human frailty. And yet (even outside of countries where an unauthorized opinion can easily get you thrown in jail) we go around telling each other, “You can’t think that,” or “You can’t say that,” or “You can’t be serious” – statements which are, frequently, themselves wrong as it turns out that people can in fact think and say all kinds of ridiculous things with utmost sincerity. This is not to suggest that we should just go along with it when other people are wrong – if presented kindly, new information and perspectives can after all help them recover from this condition – but that we must recognize that other people’s minds are their own, and they have every right to do as they like with them in the privacy of their own skulls.

The good news is that people also have the ability to change their minds, and given the correct circumstances they sometimes accomplish remarkable transformations. Indeed, I would argue that this is what makes us essentially human – the capacity to deliberately become something other than what we have been. We can decide to be kinder, or more self-aware, or more extroverted, or more religious, and then actually do it. We get to choose what and who to be when we grow up, which is a privilege no other known creature enjoys. So rather than condemning one another for being wrong, which can if thoroughly done take forever, we might want to try focusing instead on the fact that we’re probably wrong about some things too, but that we can all, if given some truth and space and respect, probably get a little bit righter.



I think you're probably right, but then thinking you're right is also a defining characteristic of being wrong -- so what if you're wrong about the right to be wrong? And how do you right a wrong, one committed by someone in the wrong, while preserving their right to be wrong against those in (or on) the right and without wronging what is right? If it's really, ultimately, all right to be wrong, how could we ever preserve the right to be right?

Right? Right on.


("Wrong life cannot be lived rightly." Says Adorno. He's usually right -- indeed, to put it rightly, I've never found him to be wrong about such things.)
You're trying to make my head hurt, aren't you? And where do you get "thinking you're right is also a defining characteristic of being wrong"? Thinking you're right is a defining characteristic of belief itself, whether accurate or misguided, so unless all beliefs are inherently wrong I'm afraid I don't follow.

I apologize if I did not adequately distinguish being wrong from doing wrong, as the latter is not something I intended to address or defend, nor do I believe it necessarily follows from the former. Putting reasonable limits on the permissible actions of members of a society does not require or justify putting any limits at all on their thoughts. And how does the right to be wrong impinge on the right to be right any more than the right to ride a bicycle impinges on the right to walk? You might not be able to do both at the same time, but you're free to switch off at will.

As for Adorno, you'd have to define both "wrong life" and "living rightly" before I could respond.


Yes, my intentions were (primarily) to use the words "right" and "wrong" as many times and ways as possible in as short a space as I could, (secondarily) to make your head hurt, and (only tertiarily) to gently make the point that, while being tolerant of and nice to other people is generally a decent idea on grounds of humanistic sociability, we still ought actually to be aggressively critical of wrongness wherever we find it. In fact as a good negative dialectician myself I find the obligation to be against falsity a higher intellectual priority than, and indeed a separate one from one's belief in, the need to find and defend the truth. Lessening the degree of wrongness we find, whenever possible, seems like the first duty of intellectuals to me.

The Adorno sentence turns out to be a semi-wrong translation, too -- "Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen" might better be rendered more like "There's no such thing as right living amid false life."
One of the points I was trying to make is that being aggressively critical isn't necessarily the best method of lessening the world's degree of wrongness. I personally find that if the goal is to change someone's mind rather than to conduct an argument, gentle criticism usually gets me further than full frontal assault on his or her beliefs, which tends to just elicit stubbornness and defensiveness. And at no point did I say that we should abstain from disputing inaccurate beliefs, nor do I think that being nice to people entails agreeing with them. But I do think that taking a respectful and charitable approach in disagreements and making a genuine effort to understand what the other person's beliefs are and why he or she holds them, no matter how wrong they might be, often leads to greater perception of truth all around. But then, of all the things I'm against, falsity really isn't that high on the list - I am, after all, someone who sits around and makes up lies for fun. I don't particularly identify myself as an intellectual with special obligations, either. Mostly I'm just interested in becoming less wrong myself, and I find that I learn more if I don't go around with an a priori assumption that I'm already right.

And I still have no idea what Adorno means by "right living" or "false life" so that doesn't really help.


Yes, I think we (appropriately enough) don't really disagree much about this if at all. It's just that I wanted to re-emphasize the fairly clear distinction between being friendly to *people* who think wrong ideas and being friendly to wrong ideas. And in any case I'm basically just goofing around here and you're (of course) more than welcome to delete the whole silly exchange.

The Adorno thing comes at the end of a long discussion of furniture and home ownership, and is basically (if I can travesty it with a short summary) about the impossibility of any truly ethically acceptable conduct with regard to owning one's possessions and dwelling-place in the late-capitalist world. Either one lives in poverty and hence has no freedom of contemplation and little control over the circumstances of one's life, or else one occupies an indefensible position of relative privilege in order to preserve one's critical freedom of thought. Point is, when the world's in the wrong, real right is not always available (hence the need for a negative standpoint, a critical philosophy). Seemed vaguely germane to me, anyway, and it's from what's basically my favorite book ever (Minima Moralia) so it's stuck pretty deeply in my brain.
Honestly I don't even know what being friendly to an idea would involve.

I don't think ethical tradeoffs are a peculiarity of the late-capitalist world but are in fact a fundamental feature of human life, so I don't really understand the longing for a way of living in which no ethical compromises are required (I'm not trying to say that Adorno's dilemma is invalid, just that, ultimately, I don't think "real right" is a possible or coherent alternative to having to mediate between competing values). But I do agree that as we must live in the world we have, it is necessary to make moral judgments both about the best course of action in a given set of circumstances, and also about the justice of the circumstances (in a larger sense) themselves.

I don't think I have a favorite book ever. And why would I want to delete this? I like discussing things...
Have you two be set up by some secret MENSA breeding program?


Human rights and peace

Yes! If all, or even most, of us on this planet would honor these rights and learn the wisdom, tolerance, understanding, kindness, tact and optimism you recommended, the world would be a much better, safer, saner and more peaceful place. Bravo!