If You and I are Both Wrong, Then Who is Right?

Maybe no one! Maybe “rightness” is buried in the confusing, chaotic details, or at a level of intellectual depth that hasn’t been analyzed, or in the observations that don’t appear relevant to the human analyst today. Or worst of all possibilities, maybe being right isn’t all that important!

Black and white polar evaluations may be useful and appropriate depending on the circumstances and the perspective of the judge. Then such “truth” may be considered relative and even accurate. An inexplicable paradox makes the human mind fret and often stop looking for the truth. Still, sincere humans want the truth to be uncovered as soon as possible.

Physicists are learning to live with and understand the rightness of the Uncertainty Principle. That is: if they know where an electron is, they don’t know how fast it is traveling; and if they know how fast it is traveling, they don’t know where it is exactly. The democratic way of letting the majority choose what’s “right” to do, may actually be detrimental to the environment, or harmful to some minority, or unenforceable in practice. Fledgling democracies may promote incompetents to power and dictators into office. Elected governments may work under certain social conditions, but not under others. The ineptitude of the California’s state government comes immediately to mind.

The unfortunate common belief adopted by most of us is that there is one right way to do things, one answer to a complicated problem, or one true path to immortality. Early on mathematicians discovered the there were two square roots to a positive number, and no square root to a negative number. Still they found a way to handle square roots of negative numbers by using the unknown square root of negative one. Ingenious? No, merely practical.

The designers of the World Trade Center buildings in New York that were recently destroyed by commercial airliners piloted by terrorists or “freedom fighters” depending on what political view you endorse, were asked if their building designs were safe. Obviously these buildings served their purpose and housed thousands of workers efficiently for decades.

Only in the catastrophic moment of this horrible act, did the buildings collapse. And this took place after they withstood unpredictable damage for enough minutes to allow many workers in the lower floors to escape the buildings before they disintegrated. The buildings were fine for the purpose they were designed, but failed in circumstances that no architect could anticipate during the years when the buildings were being designed.

In most disputes there is a solution that neither side wants to accept initially. During negotiation or arbitration some solution is determined. Unresolved minor issues will continue to aggravate one side of the issue or the other. A divorce is an example. The division of assets, the appointing of custody, and the assigning of subsequent support for the children are decisions of the court based on the judge’s criteria after he or she has heard the “evidence” presented and observed the conduct of the parties and their lawyers during the trial. Is the decision correct? Fair? Right for the parties involved? Just for the circumstances? Appropriate for the “facts” presented? Or biased due to the prejudice of the court? The decision is the decision, and will stand, right or wrong, unless overturned on appeal.

Such is our experience in life: what we think is “right” (or whatever adjective you choose to evaluate) depends on our individual viewpoint, our experience, and our bias. If we are prejudiced, we are not likely to recognize or accept someone else’s opinion or interpretation.

That doesn’t make our interpretation right and the other’s wrong, and vice versa. Nevertheless, we learned in school that there was always a “right” answer which was accepted by the teacher for each test question. That was fine if we were spelling American English words in the U. S. Public School system. Likewise we young students accepted that there was one simple or “right” answer to arithmetic problems.

Our parents taught us there was one way (their way) to do things around the house to please them. Our teachers reinforced that kind of instruction by setting rules for classroom behavior. When we started to work, our bosses professed that “the right way to do things” was covered in the book of company procedures.

All well and good under simple, known, and repetitive circumstances. However, the unusual event or the unanticipated consequence provokes a need for a deeper appreciation of what should be done to handle the unforeseen. There may be no obvious answer, no proven solution, and no “right” procedure. Something is done based hopefully on common sense and the approval of the supervisor in charge when one is available. Yet, what is approved to be done may lead to a worse situation and another unfortunate, untimely decision. Like what went on in Enron.

“Let’s try this, and if it doesn’t work out, then we can change our minds or our direction” is a frequently heard proposal by the person in charge. From the beginning, a “ridiculous” solution to an experienced observer appears “born dead.” However, it will take time to prove that evaluation.

Meanwhile, when does a whistle blower take things into his or her hands and seek a better decision from a higher level of management? Under what circumstances does the soldier lay down his arms and disobey his superior? When does the resistance of naval subordinates become mutiny on the high seas?

Each of these determinations is based on someone thinking that there is a rightness not being acknowledged or that there is some higher code of ethics or morality which classifies such behavior as unjust, incorrect, abusive, and maybe even illegal. A third party eventually enters the picture to settle the quandary: a boss, an auditor, an outside expert, or, if the situation draws public attention, some investigative group from the government.

In the worst case scenario dirty laundry is washed in public and sympathetic or unsympathetic responses are heard from various perspectives. None of which changes what actually happened. What happened, happened. No changing that. All anyone can do is opine about the “rightness” or “appropriateness” of the act itself – after the fact, of course!

Why do we insist that there is only one right way (usually our way) to proceed? Why are we so certain that we have sufficient wisdom to demand that others obey us and follow our leadership? Why are we afraid that following someone else’s suggestions will be detrimental to us? Should we expect that they will deliberately take advantage of us, abuse our “rights,” and jeopardize our future happiness?

By pushing our agenda, advocating our ideas, distributing our maps, and promulgating our program, aren’t we just trying to force others to alter their courses to conform to ours so that there aren’t any conflicts that we might have to deal with? Aren’t we merely seeking bilateral harmony by dictating the terms of peaceful coexistence?

Too many questions? And they all indicate that we are afraid to yield to the subjugation of other ideas. We resist accepting someone else’s criteria of beauty, justice, fairness, goodness, practicality – you name it. The more we stress individuality, however, the more we champion the idea that each person should establish his or her own opinions about things that he or she may know little about.

Frequently we espouse a strong personal position about some pending action or current issue. These positional statements often suffer from a lack of familiarity with the issue, pertinent facts, and the practical experience and professional knowledge that are required to deal with the disputed issue.

Vying with others to be “right” about inconsequential issues that don’t directly affect our daily lives is a national pastime in a democracy such as ours with a generous interpretation of the privilege to freely express ourselves. Verbal competition is fierce in many social venues, and sometimes follow-up action has become violent over such issues as abortion, capital punishment, treatment of the homeless, illegal immigrants, drug peddlers, drug abusers, and disobedient adolescents.

All these civic problems are merely something to argue about, not settle on who is right. Advocates of either side of an argument over a proposed solution, like the authors of self-help manuals, are usually dealing with general information about national averages. Specific cases cited by our media voices are chosen to “prove” the rightfulness of a position taken.

Still, no matter who expounds on a subject, or how informed and professional they are, or how “right” they may be, the members of the opposition rarely yield to persuasiveness. That is because very few of the participants in the arguments have the responsibility to solve the problem.

We may have strong opinions about what the President of the U. S. should do about our nation’s urgent problems, but no one except him can lead the decision makers to implement “corrective action.” Casual observers can discuss measures, worry about taking the right action, and express an opinion in “letters to the editor” or in communications to our legislators, but the weight of these is actually insignificant. Despite the excited verbosity of the shouting heads on TV, the outraged writers of our newspaper editorials and the agitated demonstrators on our street corners, most of us are unmoved. The attitudes the public has chosen are seldom changed where “rightness” is elusive and disputable.

For a greater degree of harmony in our society and hopefully some reduction in the polarization of our political parties, wouldn’t it be better to teach the relativeness of rightness and the likelihood that the best intended solutions are only temporary, ad hoc actions? Wouldn’t it be wiser to avoid confrontation over certain issues that the general public knows little about? (If a problem isn’t “in their face” or happening in their neighborhoods, most folks could “care less.”)

Chic Hollis is a longtime drummer and motorcyclist, who served in the US Air Force in North Africa. Married 4 times with 5 children born in 5 different countries on four continents, Chic is a politically independent citizen of the world interested in helping Americans understand the reality that is life overseas where many intelligent, educated, and industrious people aren’t as privileged as we are in the US. He studied Latin, Greek, Russian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and German and ran several large companies. Sadly, Chic Has left this planet and we miss him very much, but we are very pleased to display his amazing writing works.