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.