The Necessity of Being Wrong

 
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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Nobody likes to lose an argument.

The feeling of being proven wrong is never a good one. At best, it might provide a slight dent to your ego or sense of self. At worst, it can be a thoroughly humiliating affair, or reveal that one of the foundations of your beliefs is invalid or misplaced. But no matter where it lands on the spectrum, the moment when you are left with no argument against somebody on a topic you believed you were correct on is a uniquely frustrating experience that you want to avoid at any cost.

It’s why I’ve often found myself arguing to the bitter end, long after I’ve realised I’m in the wrong—solely so I do not have to face the humiliation of admitting that my position was incorrect. I remember vividly arguing for days with my friends in school that a billabong was a type of animal as well as a watering hole—even after realising that it was not. I just didn’t want to admit that my vocabulary may not be as perfect as I’d imagined it was.

Elton John hit the nail on the head when he wrote “Sorry seems to be the hardest word”. Sometimes it feels like there’s nothing harder than admitting you are wrong and apologising.

Now, maybe I’m alone in this. Maybe I’m the only person who finds themselves arguing long past the point of reason or decency. I know I come from a family that has often prided itself on being able to have drawn out debates on the most banal of topics—having a lawyer as a dad certainly helped in this regard. Perhaps this is just a unique quirk of my upbringing. But I doubt it.

Society nowadays seems more divided than it has been ever before. A study done by PsychTests noted that 66% of people believe that admitting their faults will lead to potential rejection or mockery—and that only 19% of people are willing to admit their mistakes. It also noted the damaging effect that this can have on self-esteem. A 2020 study found that political polarization has consistently been on the rise—especially in America.

The worst part is, this seems like it is unlikely to change anytime soon. This dedication to an idea is often wrapped up in notions of loyalty, patriotism or ego, and seems to be encouraged by society.

Recently I stumbled across an image from a comic containing the most prominently nationalistic superhero, Captain America. In it, he was paraphrasing a Mark Twain quote discussing the response to conflict: “Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world—”No, you move.”

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Photo by Niranjan T G on Unsplash

In theory, it’s a nice quote. It’s important to have convictions, principles and ideals which we stand by, even in the face of opposition. But the quote here feels like it misses the mark on that. Taken out of context—as this quote often is—it reads like a fetishization of individual liberty above all else, ignoring the reality that, sometimes, our opinions or beliefs are wrong. A friend joked with me that the same speech could be spoken by a fascist defending their ideals—while that might be an extreme exaggeration, it does highlight the issue: to fail to change or admit we are wrong sometimes is naïve at best, and outright dangerous at worst.

The reality is that humanity, in its current state, is irreversibly flawed. According to the Bible, this was not intended to be the case, but has been the state of being ever since humanity first rebelled against God. Romans 3:23 states that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Part of sin is being wrong, something we see time and time again in the Bible.

Perhaps most notably, the early Christian Church leader Paul was originally a devout Jew who dedicated his life to persecuting and destroying the very church he would later become a leader of. It was only after an encounter with God that he became convinced of the divinity of Jesus and the error of his ways, subsequently changing his entire life as a result.

In contrast, Jonah believed the city of Nineveh was beyond saving and attempted to avoid preaching to them. When he ultimately did, however, it was revealed that the city was willing to change and repent. Unlike Paul, Jonah did not use being proven wrong as an opportunity to grow. His story ends with him angry at God for caring for those he thought were beyond redemption—going so far as to say he is angry enough to die (Jonah 4:9-11).

The key difference between these stories is the willingness—or unwillingness— to change that Jonah and Paul had. Just like they did, it is inevitable that we will get things wrong. Sometimes they may be faith related, other times they won’t. Being wrong is not an inherently bad thing. The danger comes from how we respond to the fact.

I’ll be the first to admit that this is a difficult topic to navigate—especially when we consider the fact we must grapple with objective truth in a post-truth world. Sometimes we must stand by an unpopular opinion in the way Mark Twain or Captain America encourage us to do. The founders of the early church knew this when they were persecuted and even killed for their beliefs. But it is equally important to acknowledge that admitting to being in the wrong is an essential part of growth. The first step to repairing something which is broken is acknowledging what is wrong with it. Denial only extends the issues and prevents us from moving forward.

In this climate of increased social, political and religious polarisation, we need to relearn how to admit wrongdoing. This is something the Bible also encourages, telling us, “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices” (Colossians 3:9). It encourages us to be honest with each other—even when honesty requires admitting fault. It also highlights the other side of the argument—if you are right, you must be willing to apologise: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). If part of the reason we struggle with admitting wrongdoing is the fear of exclusion or mockery then we must be willing to accept when others admit to it and not judge in return: “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).

I’ve been wrong on numerous occasions. I was wrong about a billabong being an animal. I’ve been wrong on numerous exams with questions I was so confident I was right about. I’ve been wrong time and time again, and will be wrong many, many more times before my life is over.

Knowing this, the important question to ask is this: What will I do about it? Will I dig my heels in, plant myself and say “No, you move,” even knowing I’m wrong?

Or will I take the opportunity to become a better person?