What if You’re Wrong?


“You’re wrong,” a friend of mine said. “You’re wrong about me, you’re wrong about these little theories you have about other people, and you’re so wrong about so many things that I’m beginning to wonder if you might be just plain stupid.”

I don’t care what level of schooling one achieves, or the level of intelligence they gain through experience, a charge as harsh as that hurts. The subject of such an assessment might attempt to diffuse the power of the characterization by examining their accessor’s intelligence level, and their motivations for making such a charge, but it still leads to some soul searching.

“How can I be wrong about everything?” was the question I asked after she made the charge. “I may be wrong about some things, but how can I be wrong about everything?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “You just are.”

In the course of licking my wounds, I remembered something my eighth grade teacher once told me.

She gave me a harsh grade on a position paper that she assigned. I worked my tail off on that paper. I poured my soul into that paper. The reason I devoted so much energy on that paper had to do with the fact that I was not a good student. I rarely applied myself. I had this notion that that if I ever did apply myself, my true intelligence would finally be revealed. This particular paper, I thought, was that opportunity. I also thought it might prove something to this teacher I respected. As a result, I looked forward to receiving her grade and all of the effusive praise I felt sure would follow. It was one of the few times in my life I looked forward to receiving a grade.

“I worked my tail off on that assignment,” I said when I held that graded paper in hand.

“It was mealy mouthed,” she said. After she explained what mealy mouthed meant, I informed her that she instructed us to be careful to present both sides on this paper. I said I did that. “You were instructed to provide evidence of the opposing opinion,” she said. “You presented too much evidence,” she said. “The assignment involved taking a position. At the end of your paper, I wasn’t sure what side you were taking.” In the midst of the back and forth that followed, she added ten words that have stuck with me since. “If you’re going to be wrong, be wrong with conviction.”

***

“Have you ever considered the possibility that you might be wrong?” another person would ask me years later.

The first element of such a charge that the recipient must address is that their presentation is so arrogant that the provocateur feels the need to bring them down a notch. Once the recipient addresses that charge, and a person that seeks an honest presentation should reflect on it, the recipient should immediately focus on the motivations for making such a charge.

Some people pose this notion as often as possible. It’s a silky, smooth method of stating that they think the speaker is wrong, and so wrong that they might be stupid. They often pose the notion as if the speaker has never considered that idea before. If it’s not that, then they need the speaker to satisfy their needs, and their ego, before the speaker continues. As for the idea that I’ve never considered it before, I want to ask them if they’ve ever met my dad. The provocateur knew my dad well. They knew that my dad questioned everything that came out of my mouth. They also knew that my dad believed I was wrong about everything, and he assumed that I didn’t have the facilities to be an independent thinker. I considered this an insult in my younger years, but I now understand how difficult it is for a parent to believe that that person they knew as a toddler can arrive at independent thought, but it took me a while to reach that level of understanding. I don’t think my dad introduced this mindset to lead me to try to prove him wrong, but that was the result.

The interesting dynamic in these conversations is that prolonged involvement with a person that makes such a charge will reveal the idea that they’ve never considered the idea that they could be wrong. Their vantage point is often that of the contrarian, and that contrarian challenges what they consider a status quo relative to their own life. This mindset does not lead to reflection on one’s own set of beliefs. They have focused their energy on refuting the speaker’s words and the “Have you ever considered the idea that you might be wrong?” is the best weapon they have in their arsenal.

The ideal method of refuting further questions of this sort is to qualify every statement a speaker makes with, “I could be wrong but-”. As I’ll note below, I used to do this, but I found it tedious after a while.

***

I could be wrong, but I think any attempt a person makes to describe human nature is going to be fraught with peril. Most people will not agree with such descriptions, and they might view that person’s conclusions as simplistic, trite, and anecdotal. Some might even view the positions a person takes, as so wrong, they could be stupid.

In one regard, I view such assessments with envy, because I don’t understand how one person can unilaterally reject another’s opinion with such certitude. I still don’t, as evidenced by the fact that I still remember my friend’s ‘You might be stupid’ charge more than twenty years after she made it. I assume that she dismissed the assessments I made of her so well that she doesn’t remember them, as she was as certain then, as I assume she is now, that she was right and I was not only wrong, but I could be stupid.

Somewhere along the way, I learned that one’s definition of human nature relies on the perspective they’ve gained through their interactions and experiences. If it’s true that definitions of human nature are relative, and that one author’s assessments are based on the details of the their upbringing, then the only thing anyone can say with any certitude is that the best story an author can tell is that which is listed in their autobiography.

What if I am as wrong as my friends here have stated, and my stories don’t even come close to achieving what some would call a comprehensive study of human nature. What if every belief I’ve had over the course of the last twenty years are so off the mark, or so wrong, that they might be stupid? These questions should haunt every writer, artist, and theoretician that attempts to explain the nouns (people, places, and things) that surround them. The answer for those plagued by the enormity of trying to explain the otherwise unexplainable is to pare it down to the knowable. An author can only write what they know, and often times what they know is limited to what they hear, learn, and experience firsthand.

Those that know me often say that for all of my faults, I am a great listener. They also say that my curiosity appears genuine. I don’t listen with an eye towards developing content, in other words, but the content was a natural byproduct of a curious mind seeking to learn the details beyond which the person considered their motivation for doing what they did. The trick to arriving at such a truth is to listen and watch these people beyond the initial conversation, until we are experiencing their triumphs and failures vicariously, and we begin processing their autobiographies so thoroughly that they become a part of our own. Go beyond hearing what a person wants others to hear, to fortify a thesis, and listen to what these people say.

Some will dismiss some of the stories I use to explain human nature as anecdotal evidence of human nature. Some of them may be. To my mind, they explain the motivations of the characters involved, and the stories and theories I arrived at that have shaped my definition of human nature, and presumably my autobiography, better than any other stories can.

If there is a grain a truth to the Chinese proverb, “A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which people leave a mark,” then those that preceded the author have shaped his definition of human nature. This is not to say that one’s definition of human nature is limited to experience. Yet, when we read theories and see movies that depict questions and answers, we’re apt to be most interested in those that apply to our own experience. So, the question a reader might ask is, ‘Why did these particular stories appeal to your theories?’ The only suitable answers I’ve been able to find are, “All theory is autobiography,” and “I’m telling my story, as I heard and responded to others.”

These quotes form the foundation of these pieces, coupled with an attachment, via a complicated circuitry, to the philosophy that drove Leonardo da Vinci’s numerous accomplishments. I don’t know if da Vinci said these words, but from that which I’ve read on da Vinci, questions informed his process more than answers, and I derived a quote: “The answers to that which plagues man can be found in the questions he asks of himself.” The second is a direct quote from playwright Anton Chekov: “It is the role of the storyteller to ask questions not to answer them.”

As such, the curious reader might find more questions than answers in these stories, and they may not derive anything beyond simple entertainment, but to the author each story comprises a central theme I have regarding motivation. The goal of each of these pieces was to explain, to one curious mind, human nature. The answers hit the author based on the questions I have asked people in the interactions I have had, from my very small corner of the world. Some of the people the author interacted with were on the fruitloppery index, and some of them were a bit delusional, but most of the characters of these stories appeared so normal that the author thought they might be boring, until they told their story. When they told their story, the author asked follow up questions, until the characters opened their vault up, and the author engaged with the storyteller until he all but physically entered the dark caverns of their mind.

Even though most of these stories are based on real life experiences, there will always be some readers that require “I may be wrong, but …” qualifiers, lest they view the author as obnoxiously sure of himself. The readers that insist this is how an author should present such ideas need to ask themselves how interesting such a presentation is. Those authors are out there, I’ve read them. They spend so much of their time dutifully informing their readers that they’re not “obnoxious blowhards” that they end up saying little more. It’s so redundant and tedious that I can’t help thinking that if those authors fear they might be wrong, they should be so with conviction.

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