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The Art of Letting Others Be Right

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My brain, like all brains, houses an unbelievable quantity of remembered information, and a huge amount of that information is stuff I’ve watched on television. I always hated Star Trek, and frequently said so, but whenever I catch a clip of The Next Generation, somehow I’ve seen that episode before.

I was also never exactly a fan of The Oprah Winfrey Show, but I’ve surely seen several hundred hours of it. For years after it went off the air, I kept remembering a particular insight Oprah shared once. I forget the context, but Oprah was amazed to realize that she didn’t have to answer the phone just because it was ringing.

It was a significant insight to me too, not because answering the phone is a particularly difficult task, but because it meant there was an invisible freedom there, which I somehow didn’t realize I had. Even if I still answered every call, it felt like a choice. Before that, it had been a kind of a master-slave type relationship, in which some remote person could push some buttons and force my body up onto its feet (perhaps tearing me away from a Star Trek rerun).

I am slowly grasping another overlooked freedom, which is the freedom to let people be right (or at least feel right) even though I think they’re wrong. When someone tries to tell the world that Crash is a brilliant film, or that evolution is “just a theory”, I forget that I am free to let them continue to think so.

I gather I have a long history of arguing my views, even when I’m not sure why I’m doing it. One time I was respectfully disagreeing with a coworker about something, and after a particularly good point I made, his tone went from sporting to angry and he said, “Damn, you are one argumentative person!” I told him he was wrong, but later wondered for a few seconds if I was indeed argumentative. No, he was the argumentative one. Otherwise he would have realized I was right.

And this was before the internet was omnipresent in our lives, before it started joining us in the bathroom, back when “going online” was still just an activity you did for part of the day, rather than an additional mode of global perception we can activate at any moment. The typical person experienced far fewer moments in which it felt appropriate to argue a point beyond what politeness allows. 

Today, it’s alarmingly easy to find yourself antler-locked with some remote, faceless person who’s trying to tell you that universal healthcare is a communist plot, while you’re waiting for your potato to finish microwaving. This facelessness turns up our impulse to argue even more. You may have noticed it’s a lot less pleasant to argue with someone when you can see their eyes.

I suppose many of you have no idea what I’m talking about. You see a statement you don’t agree with, or you know to be factually wrong, and it creates no urge in you to correct, illuminate or scold, even in your head. You could hear someone praising Nancy Grace as a selfless defender of the vulnerable, or arguing that Godfather III was as good as the others, and yet feel no desire to try to get them to stop thinking that. You are wise enough to know that “fighting the good fight” in internet comment threads is almost always pure indulgence, and just gives ignorance a reason to sink anchors and get louder.

duty_calls

But many of us aren’t so wise. Those argumentative souls among us that do engage, (and there are zillions of us, based on the comment totals on Facebook and YouTube alone) often believe we are somehow actually changing minds, actually eradicating ignorance and thoughtlessness. We aren’t indulging in a destructive or at least useless pastime, we’re saving the world from wrongness, one faceless Reddit user at a time. It’s not just okay to engage in these little conflicts, it’s a moral imperative. We can’t just allow ignorance to go on unopposed. The internet (well the whole world really, but it’s easiest on the internet) must be patrolled for bad beliefs.

And of course, it seldom occurs to us that we’re wrong. Maybe all my sources are incorrect, and we do swallow eight spiders a year in our sleep. But in the heat of enthusiastic wrong-righting, it never occurs to you that you’re the problem, or at least part of it. Being wrong feels exactly like being right, which is the sole feeling experienced by all parties, in any argument, about anything.

For those of us inclined to argue every point, it’s easy to forget that we have the freedom to simply carry on with our lives and let “wrong” viewpoints stand. It’s amazing how often it can seem like an exchange needs your input, the way a screaming kettle needs to be taken off the element.

But it’s not the same. A different viewpoint, no matter how egregious it seems, is no emergency. Civilization survived for over 10,000 years before you and I got here with our snarky corrections and condescending rebuttals, and we didn’t exactly make a huge difference when we did arrive. It turns out we don’t have to try to stop people from thinking what we don’t want them to think, and that our energy is probably better spent elsewhere.

In other words, it is possible, theoretically, to retire from Belief Patrol.

I know beliefs have consequences in the real world. Harmful actions come from bad beliefs. I’m not claiming that we should never oppose anyone, never call anyone out, never engage with people who disagree with us. I just don’t think that casually sparring with blowhards on social media, or even in real life, actually affects anyone’s beliefs in a helpful way.

I think Richard Carlson’s advice is probably an ideal motto for this: Let others be “right” most of the time. Asserting and defending our views takes an enormous amount of mental energy and accomplishes little. Sometimes it’s important (and actually useful) to take a stand in a conversation, but usually it’s just a kind of peace-destroying indulgence.

By “retiring from Belief Patrol”, I’m talking mostly about retiring from having non-face-to-face arguments in which there’s no mutual respect. The moment the motivation slips from goodwill to ill-will or annoyance, I’m done.

I hope. I hope I will notice the impulse before the words come out. It can be so automatic. Once you start to consider retirement, it’s unnerving how attractive it is to say something, to throw in your “Well ACTUALLY…”

It’s like being the hard-boiled TV vice cop whose family convinced him to retire, but then without realizing it, ends up embroiled in some wild crime adventure, following clues and chasing crooks across rooftops. He ends up back in that world, fistfighting a drug dealer on top of a moving train, not because he consciously decided to go back to the grind, but because his detective instincts were sharper than his awareness of what he was doing.

So we’ll see how things go in retirement. Already I’m noticing how often the impulse comes up. I’ve deleted so many half-written Reddit replies that I wonder if I ever contributed anything other than contradiction and snark.

I invite you to join me, if you’re a long-time Belief Patrol veteran. Let’s leave the swashbuckling game for good and go play tennis. We can still express our views in a thousand other ways that aren’t so indulgent and harsh. You have this freedom, and I don’t blame you if you didn’t see it. Already I can tell you it’s way better to be retired. But I won’t argue the point.

***

Photo by Joe del tufo. Comic from xkcd.

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Nitin February 27, 2016 at 2:42 am

Amazing article, David.

I think I should retire too. :)

Curtis Smale February 27, 2016 at 2:18 pm

I might retitle this, “The Fine Art of Letting Others Be Wrong.”

If you just listen, and let their statement stand, people feel listened to.

Later, when you are casually talking with them, they notice that your beliefs don’t align with what you were silently listening to from them earlier.

That can be powerful.

Nienke Hinton February 28, 2016 at 5:55 pm

One of the best phrases I’ve learned to use often: “You could be right.” Can’t argue with that!

LennStar February 29, 2016 at 1:47 am

Oh **** I so want to argue with you now ;)

Yes, we dont have the time to right all wrongs, even in words. But more importantly it may well be that you saying (esp factual based) something against their believes will actually strengthen the wrong believes. Strange human psyche.
It is because being right is easy, changing your mind is hard, so we do it the easy way.

George G. February 29, 2016 at 10:41 am

It’s interesting to me as I sit here and reflect on what I’m feeling in response to this article is that when I have knee-jerk reactions towards inflammatory comments online, what I’m REALLY thinking and feeling isn’t so much, “I have to show them that I’m right and they’re wrong” but rather, “I have to show them that they’re being dangerous and harmful and I’m scared for my physical safety and the safety of others.”

This is something I’ve come to realize recently (with the help of a therapist) that, because I grew up being physically and emotionally bullied by other students and physically abused by my father, and because I grew up in the Bible Belt while struggling to accept my identity both as a gay man and an Atheist, I learned to be EXTREMELY scared of certain societal influences. Not just scared that I might have limited freedoms–scared that I would be MURDERED just for being gay or Atheist.

So when I choose to argue online against what I feel are prejudicial remarks, it’s because my subconscious has already set up a line of action where “This person said this thing–>This person feels this way–>This person will vote for this other person based on these thoughts and feelings–>This other person will get elected to office and will legalize genocide or other heinous acts against humanity because of their own bigotry.”

So where do we draw the line between arguing online and making sure we don’t put people in office who will legalize the second-class treatment of certain groups of citizens?

anonymous anxiety March 10, 2016 at 4:21 pm

^^ THIS EXACTLY

Matt April 18, 2016 at 8:16 am

My thought process is disturbingly similar to this. Coming from a dysfunctional family, you learn to be on the look out for slights, more so than the normal individual: what could be a begnin comment could have deeper ramifications, always, and it’s hard to remain uninvolved when in an online space, to tell yourself that this p.o.v is not worth arguing.
I’m slowly learning not to care, even if the discussion at hand could be a matter of death. There are people who are more skilled at partaking in arguments and I happen not to be one of them.

Kevin March 1, 2016 at 3:38 pm

Perhaps it is my rose-colored glasses, but in the early days of the internet, I remember looking at comments sections, and seeing reasoned thoughts and arguments along with the offensive diatribes. Today, when you read them, those comments are few and far between and are often shouted down by the masses. It makes me feel bad about humanity until I consider that most people with thoughtful and well-reasoned arguments eventually come to the conclusion that you have. I hope that is the case.

Adam March 9, 2016 at 4:02 pm

Great article, thank you! (first-time reader here)

First, I want to say I definitely agree that in such an exchange, noone is helped, beliefs are not actually being changed, and it is mostly an antler-locked scenario fueled by pride.

But I think that the source of the tension is not solely pride. For me, when I hear a belief I strongly disagree with, my instinct to correct it comes out of at least a few sources:
1) Sadness at the realization that I cannot trust this person unconditionally to help and save me, because they, too, are fallible
2) Defense of my own mental integrity from the influence of a belief I find abhorrent or misguided
3) Insecurity in my contrary belief in the face of a challenge, and a desire for my disagreement to be validated, then anger that the validation is not forthcoming

I feel that in order to really retire in a way that is compassionate to myself, that respects and understands myself, I need to address these sources of the impulse.

anonymous anxiety March 10, 2016 at 4:19 pm

Oh my goodness, this is far too fitting to me… my immediate reaction is full support of a positive attitude shift. But then again, it might be difficult to let go of my shiny badge with the Belief Patrol when so many other people are WRONG (crazy?!) and their choices and beliefs can effect my well being, or lack thereof.

Just think of the rampant racism and sexism, climate change denial, and general angry-ignorance that is rampant in the USA public… Ugh. My WORDS and logic will save us all, right?? Isn’t that what we’ve been taught? No? No. So now what?

I practice this approach with my Grandmother, who I adore like no other living person. It’s frustrating but it’s the only way we can maintain peace when discussing current events. Flat out suppression of my beliefs while politely enduring hers – which she is not shy about pushing on me. I play nice. She’s happy. We carry on.

//sigh

David April 6, 2016 at 5:49 am

Hell yes. Awesome post. I’m finding it so hard to make this comment without trying to point out things in other comments that are “wrong”. They are not wrong. All of the comments in this tread are right. Oh shit that felt awesome to say actually. I’ve been practicing something similar in life for a while now and I can honestly say that letting others be right has shown me that no matter what someone else thinks I still get to choose how I navigate my own subjective experience. What I mean is that no matter what someone thinks I still can choose to experience love and peace in myself, which means what they think has no effect on me, no matter who they are. I am not saying this is easy, or that I can often react this way. And there are certain sticking points that are really hard not to argue against, like those that deny climate change, but honestly we can ever know anything with 100% certainty. So there is always a possibility that there is more to the picture than what our own small brains carry around.

Matt April 18, 2016 at 8:03 am

I agree with you that arguing, within the particular context described here, is more harmful than anything else, in my experience anyway. I’ve realized that it’s fine to chime in and give my input on a particular issue, some of us are just wired to gravure towards certain “endeavors”, but the moment I feel that my desire to be right has robbed me of my ability to look at a comment clearly is the moment I close the tab and go take a walk.

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