sometimes people are wrong


When you write a book, passages end up on the cutting-room floor, which can cause regret later on. Right now I’m regretting having cut some reflections on Kathryn Schultz’s book Being Wrong, which offers us some excellent advice: Embrace being wrong, because you are. You are wrong about many things right now, some of them important. Get used to it.

But there’s another key element to this theme of wrongness: Other people are wrong too. But my point here is that they’re often wrong rather than wicked, in a state of error rather than a state of malice. For instance, many of my fellow conservative Christians think the Obama-era contraceptive mandate was motivated by a pathological hatred of Christianity, and they place a lot of emphasis on this interpretation. But it seems to me more likely that the people in the Obama administration who created the mandate knew little and cared less about Christianity, and were focused instead on bringing what they thought was a great good (free birth control) to women.

Similarly, I hear often from my liberal friends that Republicans actively want poor people to die from lack of health care, or at best are serenely indifferent to suffering; but isn’t it possible, indeed even likely, that they just have different ideas about what form the best feasible health care plan will look like?

Of course, questions of motive can rarely be definitively settled: we can’t crack open people’s minds and peer inside, and that goes for our own minds also. (Do you really think you possess accurate knowledge of your own motives? Do you truly believe that your heart, like that of Galahad, is pure?) Maybe Obama bureaucrats rubbed their hands in glee when contemplating the discomfiture of the Little Sisters of the Poor, and the smoke-filled rooms of the GOP echo with laughter at the thought of poor people slowly dying. Maybe. But maybe not.

So perhaps it would be better for all concerned if we suspended, or at least restrained, speculations about motives and focused on what’s right and what’s wrong. “The Obama administration was wrong to enforce contraceptive mandate because religious liberty matters, and here’s why.” “For all the flaw of Obamacare, the proposed GOP alternatives are far worse, and here’s why.”

Yes: it would be better for all concerned if we were content to say that our political opponents are merely wrong. But that’s unlikely to happen, at least widely, because once you say someone is wrong you commit yourself to explaining why he’s wrong — to the world of argument and evidence — and that makes work for you. Plus, you forego the immense pleasures of moral superiority and righteous indignation. So speculation about our enemies’ motives will continue to be a major feature of our political life, which will have the same practical consequences as Old Man Yells at Cloud.

Nevertheless, I insist: sometimes people are simply wrong.

2 thoughts on “sometimes people are wrong”

  1. I am fairly convinced that as a habit of thinking, allowing for the possibility that your opponents are merely wrong, and not actively wicked sharpens thinking. Likewise, we certainly must acknowledge that we ourselves can be wrong for a multitude of reasons.

    Moving beyond thinking about opponents to engaging with them, many choices rely on an estimation of their motives or perhaps their priorities. Here tests are possible. The Obamacare proposal process did propose a market mechanism and spent significant time under a process lead up by Sen. Baucus to attempt to win Republican votes through negotiation and concession. That effort did achieve the support of conservative Democrats but failed to attract a single Republican vote and Sen. McConnell has been on the record as choosing, and demanding of his caucus, total opposition.

    Trying to apply the technique you outline above, total opposition can make sense as tactic even if one is not wicked. I would prefer my party adopt an approach of total opposition to preventative wars rather than trying to shape the best preventative war we can achieve. Likewise, while I disagree with them I have debated with friends on my own side that argue for scorched earth total opposition tactics and that we only lose because we hold ourselves back. I disagree with that assessment, but when on the same side it is easy for me to categorize such a person as wrong but not wicked.

    Perhaps, wrong vs. wicked and determining when trust is appropriate are simply different axes. There are occasions when we might even trust the wicked in limited spheres, the concept of nuclear deterrence is based on the idea that even our most ideological opponents genuinely prioritize their own survival. Similarly, the challenges of finding trust with our domestic opponents are dwarfed by the challenges of those peacemakers in conflict situations who must grapple with direct and unambiguous death and destruction that each side has dealt to the other.

    So I suppose where I am left is that acknowledging one opponents can simply be wrong allows for clearer thinking in a multitude of domains. I think it also would help in discerning when to trust one’s opponent and may help even more so in determining when to trust one’s own side or even oneself. Even so, the question of when to trust remains a gnarly problem and I tend to think one of the hardest in politics.

    Sorry I am out of DC this week, but greatly looking forward to reading the book and seeing it’s take on this and other questions!

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