Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Being Right or Being Good

We all like to be right. We all know how hard it is to admit that we are wrong.

But we also know how often we are wrong, how many times we get things wrong – birthdays, names, what someone else said, historical facts. It therefore amazes and disturbs me how insistent many people are that they are right, you are wrong, and besides you’re stupid. The ability to offer anonymous and uncensored opinions to the world, that is now offered for free by the internet, has greatly increased the forcefulness with which more and more people assert their superior knowledge and everyone else’s confusion.

But that’s democracy. I like democracy, even though it is messy. I think it is a great advance of human society that we offer so much access to public discussions to so many people. Public debate used to be restricted to the few who possessed great resources of money, celebrity, or connections. The rest of us could just read and hear the newsmakers and commentators, maybe wishing we could get in on the conversation. Now everybody is conversing with everybody else.

This democracy of access means more democracy in politics. Today the cell phone and the internet are serving the same function that the xerox machine served in the final years of the Soviet Union: breaking the state’s monopoly on communication, telling more truth to more people, and ultimately breaking the power of the powerful, as we have seen in the Middle East.

So it’s too bad that universal access also means universally bad manners. Nobody would talk to another person the way anonymous typists send messages into virtual space. Disrespect, condescension, and name-calling has become the normal mode of political discourse. And that makes sense, because so many people seem to believe that they are just saying the obvious: I am right. You are wrong. This is a simple issue. So you must be stupid, and probably a liar.

It all begins with “I am right.” Immediately the conversation is polarized into true and false, good and bad.

There is so much uncertainty in our daily lives, yet so little uncertainty is expressed. That certainty is even more surprising on issues where the writer disagrees with most other people, and most experts, such as those who claim there is no global warming or that evolution is just an opinion. I think that the nastiness increases when the commenter knows that he is in a minority. Then the language, the anger, the vituperation reach full volume.

I say “he” because I notice the macho flavor of so many men’s political expressions. Not only am I right, but I’ll kick your ass. It is amusing to see how much of that bravado exists only on the computer screen.

It’s not merely that the tough guys turn out not to be so tough in real life. Tough or not, pounding your chest works well for apes, but is not successful in human society. Having bad manners doesn’t work in most situations. We have all been in groups which are assaulted by the blowhard, the man who is great in his own mirror, but turns out to be a jerk in company. A few glances around the circle when he leaves are enough to demonstrate how ineffective it is to broadcast truth to your inferiors, instead of conversing with your equals.

I am so old-fashioned. I really believe that being polite, being interested in what other people think, and being open about ideas is better than being right. When Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, Joe the Plumber, gave a talk here, I sat next to a man I know. He was as enthusiastic about what Joe said as I was unenthusiastic. We were each wrong to the other. But we won’t call each other names, say the other is stupid, or generally act disrespectful of each other. We have talked before and we will talk again. We will say hi and do business.

And in that friendly interchange, we will realize that our firm opinions are unlikely to be the only reasonable ones. If this other good, intelligent person thinks differently, maybe I am missing something. Maybe I could learn from my intellectual or political opponents. Maybe by being a good person, I can get even closer to the truth.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 29, 2011

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