Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On Being Wrong ... and Erring on the Side of Mercy

I am hearing responses to my reflections on the homily and processing them has given me further food for thought. No one has been uncharitable, which makes me very happy. Conversations have ranged far and wide on the subjects of the Church, our many homilists, diversity, and so forth.

It makes me continue to reflect on our assumptions when we are right and our actions when we are wrong.

I cannot encourage everyone strongly enough to watch this TED Talk by Kathryn Schulz on being wrong. In the weeks that have gone by since we watched it, Tom and I find ourselves referring to it time and again. It is more complex than you'd think for a 17 minute talk.

This morning I found myself once again going back to a concept that Schulz discussed. (I'm going to have to get her book and read it all, obviously).

I do want to stress that Schulz talks about the wonders of being wrong (and there are wonders) as well as the dangers. Watch that talk for yourself.

However, to the point that I remembered ...
... trusting too much in the feeling of being on the correct side of anything can be very dangerous.

This internal sense of rightness that we all experience so often is not a reliable guide to what is actually going on in the external world. And when we act like it is, and we stop entertaining the possibility that we could be wrong, well that's when we end up doing things like dumping 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, or torpedoing the global economy. So this is a huge practical problem. But it's also a huge social problem.

Think for a moment about what it means to feel right. It means that you think that your beliefs just perfectly reflect reality. And when you feel that way, you've got a problem to solve, which is, how are you going to explain all of those people who disagree with you? It turns out, most of us explain those people the same way, by resorting to a series of unfortunate assumptions. The first thing we usually do when someone disagrees with us is we just assume they're ignorant. They don't have access to the same information that we do, and when we generously share that information with them, they're going to see the light and come on over to our team. When that doesn't work, when it turns out those people have all the same facts that we do and they still disagree with us, then we move on to a second assumption, which is that they're idiots. They have all the right pieces of the puzzle, and they are too moronic to put them together correctly. And when that doesn't work, when it turns out that people who disagree with us have all the same facts we do and are actually pretty smart, then we move on to a third assumption: they know the truth, and they are deliberately distorting it for their own malevolent purposes. So this is a catastrophe.

This attachment to our own rightness keeps us from preventing mistakes when we absolutely need to and causes us to treat each other terribly. But to me, what's most baffling and most tragic about this is that it misses the whole point of being human. It's like we want to imagine that our minds are just these perfectly translucent windows and we just gaze out of them and describe the world as it unfolds. And we want everybody else to gaze out of the same window and see the exact same thing. That is not true, and if it were, life would be incredibly boring. The miracle of your mind isn't that you can see the world as it is. It's that you can see the world as it isn't. We can remember the past, and we can think about the future, and we can imagine what it's like to be some other person in some other place. And we all do this a little differently, which is why we can all look up at the same night sky and see this and also this and also this. And yeah, it is also why we get things wrong.
The visuals accompanying this section boiled down to what Tom and I remembered this morning at breakfast.
Assumptions made about people who disagree with us:
  1. They're stupid. If not that, then ...
  2. They're ignorant. If not that, then ...
  3. They're evil.
In my experience, in American culture at least, this is practically universal.

(In this I am backed up by this Cracked.com piece about 6 double standards we're all guilty of. Note that #1, 2, and 3 cover it pretty well. Warning: language alert ... I read this a while ago and don't remember specifically but you can count on Cracked to toss profane language around.)

God knows our hearts and that is why his love gives us mercy as well as justice. We do well if we err on the side of mercy always, but especially with those who disagree with us.

The Anchoress providentially writes today about God's love and mentions this point.
It is beyond all of our knowing, which is why—no matter how tempted we are in our increasingly polarized church to stand with the Pharisees—we cannot. We must, ultimately err on the side of mercy, because mercy is what we all seek, and leave justice to the One who may be trusted to know what that is.
She's always worth reading, but never more than in this piece at First Things which I recommend to all.


  1. I don't agree with you. you are an idiot!


  2. Safe assumptions about people in general, including ourselves:
    In some measure they indeed are
    1) ignorant,
    2) stupid,
    3) evil.
    And that's why we get things wrong, not because of the 'miraculous' power of the mind to see things as they are not. Fantasies may be exciting, but reality (and seeing reality) is exciting too - it is not 'incredibly boring.'


  3. David, your list seems like a series of dangerous assumptions on its own and very lacking in charity or a sense of "erring in mercy." Your followup comment does not seem to connect for me ... further explanation would be needed.

  4. One truth the saints knew that we have largely forgotten, is that those who are wrong regarding faith and morals are often wrong not because they are simply evil, but because they have welcomed particular sins into their soul, those sins are guarded and spiritually embodied by demons appropriate to that sin, and those demons then subtly influence our sentiments, beliefs and even apprehensions of beauty and ugliness. So, people often are wrong and unable to see it (they are resistant to various forms of evidence--clear argument, historical facts and exemplars, and evident love and holiness) because of sin.

  5. the previous comment was sent by 'Scott'

  6. I think there's another way to view the differences than presented. I think others are functioning with different axioms. That means that the great unknowable assumptions that frame our view of the world - namely your beliefs. The key one being faith/lack there of in God the next key one is who (among men) do you put your faith in. This is critical because those who you trust are the sources of the facts you accept and reason from.

    This means that brilliant well meaning people can arrive at different answers due to different assumptions.

    I'm not the same David as above by the way.

  7. To continue the point a bit further. In math geometry has 4 axioms or theorems. If you toss Pythagoras' 4th theorem (parallel lines never cross) you create non-euclidean geometry. Both forms of geometry are valid, internally consistent logical ways of looking at the world , but the non-euclidean geometry explains more of it (like why the longitudinal lines are parallel/perpendicular at the equator yet touch at the poles.

    So imagine the same in our lives. One man believes in God and so sees things in the eternal context and adjusts his life to please God as he understands Him. A second person does not believe in God and so adapts to please himself or his friends or his employer etc.

  8. That is a thoughtful comment and I do see what you are saying and, in fact, agree.

    However, the point that was being made was that we all tend to default to those three basic assumptions about the "other" group.

    Of course, our faith should help us in particular break out of that mindset (as to some degree it has helped me). However, it is worth noting that it tends to be a default that we slip back to even if we have moved past it some.

    In my dealings with folks in the last few days, I can say that we do tend to run with that default. So it is good to be aware of it and practice mercy so that it overrides the default (so to speak).

    BIG POINT ... we are not immune to it. (Which is a big part of the Cracked piece)

  9. You make a great point about how we look at those who disagree with us. Instead of trying to understand each other and engage in intelligent debate, we do seem to always revert to "they're just stupid/ignorant/evil." Everyone has a reason for what they do and what they believe. We can't hope to work for the Kingdom without being open to understand the "other"'s reasons.