The Right to Be Wrong

Among the inalienable rights we enjoy in democratic societies is the right to be wrong.  We have an unfettered right to make a choice about our fundamental values, our publicly-stated opinions, and our actions—and to express these choices.

We bear a burden for holding this right, however, in that we are expected to (and can often be made to) accept responsibility for the consequences of our choices.

This notion has become more significant for me recently, as I watch in horrified fascination the shenanigans of the so-called ‘leader of the free world’, and his enablers, in the great republic to the south of us.

The circumstance of being wrong is a subjective concept.  How do we know, how can we determine absolutely, when someone is wrong?  Is there a conclusive test?  Do we always know right away, or does it sometimes take a long time to figure it out?

In fact, there are societal norms in place to govern our interactions and behaviours; but most of them evolve over time, as each succeeding generation shapes the world to its liking.  An action considered wrong for my Victorian grandmother (like appearing on the beach in a two-piece bathing suit) would certainly not be condemned today.


The norms come into existence in one of two ways.  They are legislated for our common good by duly-elected representatives, or they are adopted by people at large as benchmarks for social intercourse.  Regardless of their source, they become truly effective only when they enjoy a high degree of acceptance among those for whom they are intended.  It has been called governance with the consent of the governed.

An example of the legislative method is the imposition of speed limits for vehicles on publicly-owned roadways; it is clearly wrong to exceed the posted limits.  An example of the adoptive method is the attitude towards smoking, particularly around other people; even in jurisdictions where smoking is not yet illegal, it is definitely frowned-upon to subject others to second-hand smoke.

Of course, in neither form, legislated or adopted, do our societal norms enjoy universal approval.  There are countless scofflaws in the general population who pay only lip-service at best to those they consider trivial.  Have you, for instance, ever exceeded a posted speed limit?  I confess I have.  And there are people who, despite both the social opprobrium and scientific evidence attesting to the effects of smoking, who still choose to light up.

More importantly, and more dangerously, we have fringe groups among us who vigorously, sometimes violently, oppose those norms they disagree with.  If that were not the case, abortion clinics would not be bombed; temples, mosques, and churches would not be defaced with hateful graffiti; and people would not be denigrated and harassed because of skin-colour, gender, sexual orientation, age, or disability.

Thankfully, such violent actions are widely considered wrong in a democratic society.  And, wherever possible, punished.

In the distant past, Isaac Newton famously hypothesized that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Known as Newton’s Third Law of Motion, it pertained to the physics of interactions between two opposing forces.

We might think of the relationship between behaviour and consequences in a similar, though not identical, manner.  The first begets the second.  If I drop a crystal goblet on a tile floor, for instance, the goblet shatters; if I stroll through an afternoon shower sans umbrella, my clothing becomes soaked; if I bite down on my tongue while chewing, I experience pain.  Such natural consequences are the result of the behaviours immediately preceding them.

Logical consequences are different, but no less substantial.  If I drop that crystal goblet while examining it in the store, I will almost certainly have to pay for it.  If I speed through a residential neighbourhood (even if I am fortunate not to strike a pedestrian), I may be cited by a traffic cop, leading to the payment of a substantial fine.  Logical consequences are imposed as a result of our behaviours by outside authorities empowered to do so.

All of which brings me back to my dismay at the disarray I witness almost daily in the USA.  People elected to govern on behalf of the people who elected them behave, instead, in their own selfish interests.  They make decisions, not on the basis of how a particular matter might benefit their constituents or their country, but on whether it will improve their chances for re-election.  They take positions, not representing those who voted for them, but the moneyed interests who finance their pursuits.


They spend their time, not enacting legislation to benefit all citizens, but fighting their partisan, internecine battles in a sadly-ritualistic dance to the death.

And at the forefront, a bombastic, narcissistic showman, ignorant in the ways of leadership, determined above all to have his way.  To win!

Can the great republic be wrong in the fateful choice it made just six months ago?  And if so, what will be the consequences for the nation, and for the rest of the world?

We have an inalienable right to be wrong, it is true.  But never in my memory have the potential consequences of being wrong been so enormous.  I want to cry out—

How can you be so stupid?  Fix this!  More important than your right to be wrong is your duty to be right!

And, helpless to affect matters, I continue to watch.



Don’t Confuse Me!

Our high-rise community participated in a neighbourhood garage sale recently, and we were all asked to donate items to the cause.  Several residents worked very hard to collect, label, and affix prices to the assorted contributions.

Most people donated cheerfully, but one elderly man offered his two cents’ worth about the enterprise when he, somewhat grudgingly, dropped off his items.

“It’s not right, y’know,” he said.  “Rich folks selling stuff to raise money for themselves.”

grumpy old man

The volunteer who accepted his goods might have wondered why he was donating, given his point of view.  But rather than question it, she chose to explain the endeavour.

“Actually, the money raised from the sale is going to a number of good causes,” she said.   “It will buy wood for the woodworking club to make toys for kids at Christmas; it will buy paint for the artists’ club to paint them; it will buy wool for the knitters’ group to make mittens, hats, and sweaters for kids; and a cash contribution will be made to the local battered-women’s shelter.”

“Oh,” was all he said before shuffling away, unmollified.  Presented with the facts—details that contradicted his preconceived notions—he had no comeback.  There were no further questions, no requests for additional information, no expression of greater understanding.  Nothing.

As a witness to this exchange, I couldn’t help but compare it to the same phenomenon we see in the broader public sphere.  How many of us, convinced of the legitimacy of opinions we may have formed on any subject, are resistant to evidence that proves us wrong?

“I think…” we might say, as preface to a harangue on some subject or other.  “In my opinion…” we may begin, before embarking on a diatribe of some sort.  “Everybody knows…” we might say, before expounding on whatever is the topic at hand.

And when we do, we are usually sincere and convinced in our viewpoint.  Even if that viewpoint is based on little reflection, born of a subjective opinion, or informed by a group mentality.

There is an election taking place right now in the USA, the country to the south of us, a presidential contest that is rapidly (if not already) attaining farcical status.  As an interested onlooker, I am astounded by the shallowness of the debate over issues, the venality of the personal attacks, and the ignorance of large swaths of the electorate.

Lest I be accused of self-righteousness, let me concede that elections in our own country are not models of decorum and honour.  But, so far as I can determine, we have never had a candidate for the highest office in the land who appealed, deliberately and recklessly, to the basest elements of our populace.

There is a burgeoning movement in the USA, labelled the alt-right, which festers mostly in the social-media universe.  Although loosely-organized (if at all), its proponents focus on a number of major themes, among them:  race, gender, immigration, self-reliance and individualism, and small-government.  Their major grievance appears to be a sense of disentitlement, a belief that they’re losing their historic, God-given rights to a post-modernist, liberal elite.

Their vociferous body-politic includes racists and white-supremacists, misogynists, homophobes, anti-Semites, and xenophobes.  A large segment of their ranks consists of disaffected white men (and perhaps the women over whom they exercise control)—an alienation founded in the shrinking of the middle-class, disappearing jobs and income, a perceived increase in crime and terrorism, and an assault on their ‘inalienable rights’.  They want someone to restore what they have lost.

Trump hat

The alt-right movement, for the most part, has aligned itself behind Donald Trump, a billionaire candidate, who has at various times claimed that:

  • the current president was not born an American, and may in fact be Muslim;
  • Hispanic immigrants from Mexico are criminals and rapists, expelled from their own country;
  • thousands of Muslim-Americans cheered as they watched the Twin Towers fall on 9/11;
  • an American-born judge of Mexican heritage is not qualified to sit on the bench because of his ethnicity; and
  • most white homicide victims in the USA are killed by African-Americans.

Major media organizations have looked into these statements—and myriad others of the same ilk—and debunked them as lies, citing credible data to support their findings.  Nevertheless, alt-righters continue to believe them and repeat them, relying on their gut-level intuition rather than evidence.

“Don’t confuse me with facts!” they appear to be saying.

These deluded devotees remind me of the elderly gentleman who brought donations to our neighbourhood garage sale—unconvinced by the truth, unlikely to change his mind, determined to remain in a state of blissful, self-righteous ignorance.

It’s true, I suppose, that all of us could be seduced by a particular version of the truth that resonates with us, whether personal, political, religious, or simply comforting.  But to any of us who find ourselves in that situation, I have one piece of advice—

Don’t believe everything you think!