Sunday, 14 April 2013

On Being Right

"There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy." (Jacob Bronowski)
There is a Referendum, which is soon taking place in Jersey on revamping membership and constituency boundaries, and I've been following the debates with interest.
It is typical of many political debates in that each of the different camps thinks they are right, they have the best option. This can be expressed in many different ways, of course. Some think the alternatives to their position are not fair or unequal. Others look to keep some existing elements of Parish Representation. Others are unhappy with the choices given, and the third choice is basically the current position as a rejection of the other two choices.
Everyone there had a viewpoint, and they all believe they are right, which reminds me of an old folk tale.

It is a folk tale from Turkey, which probably originated in Persia, which appears in various forms, about the Mullah Nasrudin, also called at times the Hodja. It looks at the idea of being right, and how two sides (or is it three?) can in fact be right:
The Mulla was made a magistrate. During his first case the plaintiff argued so persuasively that he exclaimed: 'I believe that you are right!'
The clerk of the Court begged him to restrain himself, for the defendant had not been heard yet.
Nasrudin was so carried away by the eloquence of the defendant that he cried out as soon as the man had finished his evidence: 'I believe you are right!'
The clerk of the Court could not allow this.
'Your honour, they cannot both be right.'
'I believe you are right!' said Nasrudin.
In other versions of the story, the Hodja is intervening in a dispute between two friends of his, and his wife is the one who tells him they cannot both be right. These are old folk tales, and while the substance remains the same, the protagonists differ.
But the main thrust of the story is the same. The person making a case thinks they are right, and they have the best possible case, better than their opponent or opponents.
The danger is when thinking you are right means that you cannot conceive that your opponent may also think the same. It is important to concede that, from another point of view, someone may see matters very differently, and believe just as passionately that they are right.
Why is it important? It is important because without that degree of intellectual humility, there is a great danger of denigrating other people, and riding roughshod over them. We must be passionate about our own beliefs, but we should be careful not to assume that we must be right. We could be wrong.
Despots believe that they have absolute certainty, and act accordingly. They never contemplate they could be mistaken. But the path to the despot can be paved with good intentions, with reshaping the world, with political interventions that are believed to be right.
Karl Popper's thinking, which he called "critical rationalism" was shaped by his study of Socrates and Socratic method. It could perhaps be best summed up in a nutshell as he once put it: ""I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth."
He also noted how we so often have a blind spot against any weaknesses in our own beliefs, in what we believe to be right: "If we are uncritical we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories."
There is a small tyrant in all of us, saying that our beliefs are right, they cannot be wrong, and anyone who does not think as we do is wrong. It is not a big tyrant; it doesn't effect most of the ways we act, but it is lurking there, waiting for a chance to come out and take over. Feed it, water it, and it will grow. Go into politics, and it may well bloom in that soil. Politicians so often know best.
So sometimes it does us good to catch ourselves when we want the last word, to make our point, to show that "we are right" and "they are wrong". That small tyrant inside us is at work, pulling our strings like a puppeteer, giving us an itch we want to scratch. Shall I have the last word? Perhaps today, I'll step back and let the other person have the last word. I'll break the chronic pattern.
And sometimes it does us good to play the philosopher, and think, "what if I could be wrong or mistaken", and try and put ourselves inside someone else's head, to see the world through a different viewpoint.
That is something that despots and tyrants never do.

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