gold_flamingo (gold_flamingo) wrote,

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.

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