Just Because You’re Right Doesn’t Mean the Other Guy is Wrong
Sometimes the opposite of the right answer is another right answer.
It’s counter-intuitive, but it’s true. And I think it’s important.
Noble Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling gives us a helpful example. Tying together sports and animal science the way only he can, he starts by quoting the first paragraph of a book by Leonard Koppett about baseball: “Fear.” That’s the whole paragraph, and it’s a good one. Then on the theme of fear, Schelling reminds us that dogs can actually smell fear, and their reaction to fear is aggression. This means that it makes perfect sense to be afraid of dogs. At least, it’s the experience of someone who’s afraid of dogs that there’s every reason to be afraid of them.
But the catch is that people who aren’t afraid of dogs find that it makes just as good sense not to be afraid of dogs. That is, it’s the experience of someone who’s not afraid of dogs that there’s no reason to be afraid of them.
Two people. Two different answers to the same question, both of them rational. But just because they’re both right doesn’t mean that they are both just as good.
Precisely because they are both right, we have a choice — in this case a choice between living in justified fear, or justifiably living free of fear. It seems to me that the better path is the one without fear and without dog bites.
But I can only imagine how hard it would be to convince someone who’s already been bitten a few times. In fact, if such a person and I tried to find the fearless path together without the proper preamble, the fearful person would join me, express entirely rational fear, cause the dog to get aggressive, and then the dog, seeing me as the easier target, would attack me.
The fearful person would leave vindicated (if unscathed). But my perception would be that the fearful person ruined my previously good relationship with dogs. We would never see eye to eye, and might never understand why the other one can’t grasp our own eminently sensible and correct position.
The truth is, I don’t know if dogs actually do smell fear. (Schelling’s other example is bomb diffusion officers, whose fingers tremble if they think the task is dangerous, but the task is only dangerous if their fingers tremble.) I only bring it up because there are usually lots of right ways to do something, with various combinations of freedom, constraint, trust, skepticism, praise, discouragement, encouragement, holiness, and banality.
Just for example, in an environment based on distrust, people will quickly find that they are right not to trust their fellow. But people who trust each other can be just as right to do so.
The more general point is that it might be helpful, the next time we think we know that other people are wrong, to ask if maybe all we really know is that we are right. Because if so, maybe they’re right, too.
Finally, returning to the dogs and the lessons we learn from them, a question presents itself: Which one do we want to be? The one who spreads fear or the one who spreads calm?
We get to choose.