Being right – I ran across an essay recently (that is, “recently” in normal human terms, meaning sometime in the last few weeks, not in internet terms, meaning sometime within the last few hours) entitled, “Why smart people defend bad ideas.” You may, of course, read the essay for yourself, but honestly I thought most of the article was tangential to the main idea. That is, the author spent most of the essay talking about how smart people defend bad ideas (and how to defeat such smart people in arguments), not why. This is not to say that the essay isn’t an interesting read—it is, I was just expecting something more psychological than logical.
Before he explores the how, though, he does touch on the why in the first section of the essay, and his main point is summed up in this statement: “The problem with smart people is that they like to be right and sometimes will defend ideas to the death rather than admit they’re wrong.” He elaborates on this some, but essentially that’s it for why smart people defend bad ideas. I think the essay would have been better titled, “How smart people defend bad ideas, and how to defeat them in an argument.”
Personally, I find the idea of smart people liking to be right a far more interesting topic. First of all, I suppose we should point out that everyone likes to be right. That may be obvious, but I think it’s important to realize that. Smart people are not characterized by this desire to be right, they are characterized by the desire to be right at the expense of all other concerns. Now that we have that cleared up, the next important question is: why? Why do smart people tend to value rightness above all else? Rather than treat you to a philosophical dissertation on the subject, I thought I’d delve into my own life to see if I could shed some light on the subject. This all hinges, of course, on the supposition that I am in fact a smart person. I won’t deny that this supposition is open to debate, but let’s just assume for the sake of argument that I am a reasonably smart individual.
Let me clear up one more thing before diving in. “Right” is not as clear a term as you might first think. Most people think of right and wrong as a dichotomy, like black and white or night and day. The concept of “being right” in “smart people like to be right” is not an absolute right opposed to an absolute wrong. What it really means is that smart people like to be victorious in an argument—in other words, they like to be perceived as being right (or as not being wrong, which is sometimes conflated with being right), and that can be an entirely different thing from actually being right.
When I was young, I loved to argue, and I defended some really bad ideas. I did not defend them because deep down I thought they were right, or because I had some hidden agenda, but simply because I liked to argue. I could be fully aware that an idea was dead wrong, but I would still defend it because it was fun to argue with people. I suppose the whole pride thing about not being proven wrong factored into it as well.
I have a very vivid memory from the second grade. I am sitting alone in a chair on one side of the classroom. The rest of the class is sitting in their chairs on the other side, facing me. They are all glowering at me with frowns and crinkled brows. And yet I have a huge grin on my face. Why? Because we are having a discussion about a book we read. The teacher asked a question about the book, and she had those of us who felt one way about the book sit on one side of the class, and those who felt the other way sit on the other. Then we argued our cases in turn, and people could switch sides as they saw fit.
I soon became the de facto advocate for my side. The advocate for the other side (let’s call him John, even though that’s not his name—I can remember his face very clearly, but for the life of me I can’t remember his name) was another smart kid, and we argued back and forth for quite a while. One by one, my allies abandoned me to the enemy, and before long I was alone against the entire class. And I was smiling.
I don’t remember what the question was (or even what the book was), but I do know that it wasn’t really a debate question—there was a fairly clear right answer. Being the smart kid that I was, I quickly realized that I was on the wrong side. I could have switched sides, but I knew that no one else on my side would be able to argue convincingly. It was up to me. I was the lone Jedi taking on the evil Empire—if Jedi were actually smart but annoyingly arrogant second graders, that is.
I never gave up the fight, even when there was no hope. After it become clear that I couldn’t prove my point (because it was dead wrong), I went on the defensive and did my best to prevent John and his minions from proving me wrong. I imagine that there must have been a conclusion at some point, but I can’t remember what it was. All I remember is that I sat there with a grin on my face while the other side just grew angrier and angrier. It’s a wonder that I didn’t get the living crap kicked out of me.
Fast forward ten years or so. I’m sitting in the Night Owl Cafe on the campus of SUNY Binghamton. Across from me sits J, the girl I love. We are eating mozzarella sticks, or grilled cheese sandwiches, or cheeseburgers, or something else with cheese that tastes good but is incredibly bad for you. We are arguing about something, but it is not a heated argument. I am in control of my passions, and I approach the argument very logically. J is not as in control, and she argues very passionately. In mid bite I realize: she’s right. And I smile. Up until that point, I had thought I was right, but she had been right all along. I smile because I am proud of her. She didn’t let me snow her over with my arguments, and she presented her argument convincingly. I notice that she’s still talking, and she doesn’t realize that she’s won. What I am about to say is a very big step in my development as a human being, but I love this girl, and right now I am so proud of her I can swallow my own pride.
“You’re right,” I interrupt.
“I don’t want to be right!” She slams her hand down on the table. The couple across from us turns to look. “I just don’t want to argue with you.”
I raise my eyebrows in surprise. How could someone not want to be right? Isn’t that the point of arguing? To be right? To win? I look at her carefully. She is leaning forward, her palm still pressed down on the table, her eyes pleading with me. I remember again why I love her, and I realize how far I still have to go before I have even the slightest clue as to what goes on in the mind of a woman.
Fast forward another ten years or so. I am halfway around the world, sitting with my wife in our bedroom. She says, “The people around me are being absolutely no help in my diet. Why does Mom have to make all that delicious food?” (For the record, and to protect myself against incrimination, it should be noted that my wife does not really need to diet, but—like most women—feels that she does.)
I raise an eyebrow and carefully insert my entire foot into my mouth. “What do you mean the people around you aren’t helping? If you want to diet, you have to be responsible for what you eat.”
My wife laughs. “You think I don’t know that? Why can’t you just agree with me? You know, just to make me feel better.”
“Because what you said makes no sense.”
“Who cares if it makes sense? Making sense is not the point.”
“So you want me to just agree with you whether what you say makes sense or not.”
Being such a devious and arrogant debater, I tend to pounce on weak arguments whenever and wherever I see them. Even though I have learned that I don’t always have to be right, and that I don’t always have to win arguments (and that, in fact, it is better if I lose most of them), I eat logical loopholes for breakfast. When someone says something that does not entirely hold water, I jump on it like a starved wolf on a nice, plump sheep.
Living the married life has been another (ongoing and sometimes very painful) step in my education as a human being. One thing I have learned about my wife is that we often judge statements according to different criteria. This is not to say that my wife isn’t intelligent and can’t hold her own in an argument—in fact, she is a very valuable sounding board when it comes to academic matters, and she helps me flesh out my thinking.
Outside the academic realm, though, it would seem that we have different goals in conversation. Take the conversation above, for example. I’m not entirely stupid, and I quickly realized what my wife’s goal in this conversation was. She was not concerned with the truth value of the statement, she was just tossing a line out in hopes of reeling in some sympathy and encouragement. If I hadn’t been so blinded by my own obsession with rightness, I would have seen that right away. Even after I realized the gap between our goals, though, I continued to argue that she couldn’t expect me to sympathize with her when she was making such blatantly absurd statements.
Looking back over my description of the incident, I see that I sound like a complete idiot, and that’s probably because I was. How hard would it have been for me to sympathize with her? Not very hard at all. All it would have taken was something like, “Yeah, no one’s being any help.” Mission accomplished. But no, I had to be my obstinate, logical self. Fortunately, the discussion didn’t develop into a full-blown argument—not because of any restraint on my part, but because my wife was too amused at how ridiculous I was being to actually get offended. Me, I was just oblivious.
I’ve learned a lot, but I still have a lot left to learn. It’s very hard for me to put other concerns ahead of truth value. Even if I know that I can diffuse a situation by conceding a point even if it isn’t right, I will obstinately stick to the truth. This mainly applies to interactions with my wife, of course—in social interactions I’ve become very adept at the survival technique of appeasement. With my wife, though, all the stops are pulled, so she invariably sees the very worst of me.
Anyway, that’s me. I would say that I like to be perceived as being right because of pride. That’s the easy one. As to why I put truth and rightness before all other concerns... well, that’s a bit more complicated. Today being Father’s Day, though, I’ll do the popular thing and just blame it all on my dad. The men in my family are known for being intensely stubborn—so stubborn, in fact, that my mother would probably qualify for sainthood if she were Catholic. Heck, they might make an exception for her anyway.
But it goes beyond stubbornness. I learned some things from my father that have stayed with me throughout my life. Never make excuses. If you screw up, admit it. Take responsibility for your actions. Always tell the truth, no matter how much it may hurt. Stand up for what you believe in. Never compromise your beliefs.
My father has mellowed quite a bit with age (true story: shortly after I first came to Korea, a friend of mine went back to the States and met my father while she was there. When she came back, she said, “Your dad is just a big teddy bear!” I replied, “Are you sure that was my father you met?”), but he still has that strong foundation. I grew up with that, and it became a big part of who I am. Unfortunately, when combined with the trademark stubbornness, it can lead to difficulties in interpersonal relationships, especially when it comes to women. I’m not saying that women can’t have equally strong convictions, but most of the women in my life have recognized that being right is not always the most important thing.
I’m learning, I really am. Slowly but surely, I’m learning that there are times for absolutes and there are times for a bit more leeway. Actually putting these ideas into practice is a lot harder than sitting here and just writing them down, but hopefully doing so will help to pound them deeper into my head.
And I suppose the above might not be the typical thing to say on Father’s Day, but there it is: the truth, no matter how much it hurts. I know my dad, being the mellow fellow that he now is, will appreciate that. Here’s to hoping that I continue to mellow as well.