The Problem with Knowing you’re Right

By Seán Mullan

My problem is not that I’m right; my problem is knowing I’m right.

Being right is a good thing, a grand thing. Being right saves you time, effort, and money and protects you from lots of good old-fashioned grief. And it beats being wrong.

But knowing you’re right is another story altogether. Knowing you’re right makes it hard to listen to those who you know are wrong. Sure, what would be the point? You would have nothing to learn from them anyway - at least not on the issue you know you’re right about. And if they are wrong on that issue, then the chances are they’re going to be wrong on other issues too. And the fact that you are right on this issue makes it more likely that you’ll be right again.

Once you know you’re right, you won’t be spending a lot of time listening to the ones who are wrong. It would feel like a betrayal. There’s a strong possibility that by listening to them, you might give their viewpoint some credence. And maybe there’s also an unspoken fear that they might not be quite as wrong as you believe – that they may have some truth on their side.

Once you know you’re right, you won’t be spending a lot of time listening to the ones who are wrong.

So it’s safer to assume that being right on one thing makes you right on most of the rest as well. Once you cross that line, then dealing with those who disagree with you is easy. You consign them to the community of “the wrong” – or, if you’re feeling charitable, “the nearly always wrong.” You find a name that reinforces their wrongness – heathen, pagan, secular, liberal, worldly or conservative, fundamentalist, religious, traditional. Once you’ve come up with a satisfactory label, you can use that label to tune them out. “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they! Their lot always says that kind of thing!”

Many of our public debates easiliy slip into this particular format. The only way to win a debate is to demolish the arguments of the opposing side – remove every shred of credence or validity from them. Don’t deal with nuance or shades. If the issue is going to be decided in a public referendum, then it must come down to a simple yes or no, black or white. The winners will be 100% right, the losers 100% wrong. (Unless, that is, it’s a debate on a European Treaty; then it’s the losers who will be right and we’ll just have to vote again!)

There is an alternative approach to the labelling of “them” and “us”. It centres around the idea of a mutual pursuit of truth. But that can be a lonely path to tread.

This alternative path starts with the realisation that being right about one thing doesn’t make you right about everything. It continues with the notion that just because the other crowd is wrong about one thing does not mean they have no light to shine, no knowledge worth sharing.

This particular path moves ahead by replacing “Let me tell you why you’re wrong” to “Let me see if I can find some truth in your position.” It involves moving from “You shut up and listen” to you shutting up and listening.

The path leads on to a place where both sides begin to recognise a truth beyond themselves and their own convictions. It leads forward in the direction of a mutual pursuit of truth.

No, of course they may not all arrive at the same destination. There are issues where the only choices are yes or no, black or white. But even when we don’t find agreement, the fact that we have sought truth together may provide us with a foundation for living together after the issue has been decided, when one side has won and the other lost.

Maybe truth doesn’t need protecting – just pursuing. And maybe discovering you’re not as right as you thought you were is an essential part of the journey towards the truth.

Seán Mullan has been working in church leadership for many years. He has developed a project in Dublin City Centre called “Third Space”.