In a recent article, I posed the question “Should I tell you?“, regarding the situation in which I’m pretty sure you’re wrong about something, but am uncertain as to whether you will tolerate a discussion about it. In this present article, I assume that the answer to the previous question is “yes”, and that I’m planning to risk the discussion. This article is about the difficulties that often arise as the intended one-point discussion turns into a veritable “birds nest” of entanglements such as one finds in a backlashed fishing reel.
Here’s what I mean. Suppose that I want to correct you on some certain point—we’ll call that point “E” to be efficient. You are wrong about E, and have not done enough study yet to figure that out, so I want to share with you what I know. I do this in good faith as you are my friend, or as you are discussing the matter online and write as if you are a reasonable person who is concerned with the facts of a matter.
The problem arises in the fact that it’s quite likely that neither the facts about our topic E, nor your erroneous beliefs about it, are stand-alone tidbits of information in your mind. Instead, they are most likely intertwined with other facts and/or beliefs, or built upon them. It’s very likely, therefore, that I cannot successfully set you straight on E without also dealing with A, B, C, and D.
Remember, since in our hypothetical discussion, you have not studied A, B, C, D, or E, you will have no basis other than hearsay and tradition for your beliefs. So when I correct you on E, you’ll find it hard to swallow since what I’m saying is to you, “…different from what I’ve always heard”. And if you are the sort who won’t take the time to vet the things you hear, you’ll simply dismiss what I’m telling you, because you’ve heard otherwise from others far more often than you’ve heard what I’m saying. So in your mind, discerning the truth of a matter is more like conducting a survey of people’s beliefs on the matter than it is like doing actual research.
So let’s look at an example, with a view toward making sense of what I’m trying to communicate in this article. Let’s suppose that I hear you say one day, “Abraham Lincoln saved the Union.” I could say to you, “No, actually, Abraham Lincoln destroyed the Union and did more in one administration to turn the nation into a totalitarian state than has any other president.” You would likely think, “I’ve never heard that before.” And if you’re like so many people, that would be the end of it. You would not pursue the matter any further, neither changing your beliefs nor even opening yourself to the possibility that what you’ve “always heard” just might be wrong. You would resist whatever urge there may be in your mind to ask, “How’s that?”
But let us suppose, for the sake of this present post, that you objected to my correction of your point E thus: “No, he saved the Union; he kept it from being torn apart by slavery.” You have just now revealed that your belief about E is predicated upon or intertwined with your belief about D (That the war was “about slavery”). Realizing your further error, I venture to correct you further: “No, the war had very little to do with slavery; it was about settling inequities that began in the very First Congress with the passage of the Hamilton Tariff, which effectively forced the Southern States to buy from Northern manufacturers instead of buying cheaper overseas. Since the South had practically no manufacturing, it derived no benefit from this tariff and found itself paying more money for the benefit of a few privileged manufacturers in the North.” (Read more about the Hamilton Tariff in this chapter.)
You’ve never heard this before, so you don’t have any basis for belief one way or the other. Since you’ve never heard it before, you don’t believe it to be true and are content to carry on as if I had never mentioned it…as if, more or less, it could not be true. So you continue on, this time revealing yet another belief of yours, which we shall call “C”: “Now you wait a minute there; the South fired the first shots in that war, trying to protect the institution of slavery. They had no right to fire.”
“Here we go again,” I’m thinking. So I inform you, “The Southern States legally and rightfully seceded from the Union, to which Lincoln replied by deliberately sending his warships into Charleston harbor to occupy and to resupply a fort (Sumter) that had previously been abandoned by Union troops. This was itself a deliberate act of war as it was an illegal incursion into the waters of a now-foreign nation (South Carolina). Therefore, South Carolina, as a sovereign state and as a party to the Confederate States of America, had every right to defend itself against Lincoln’s invasion. If it was about ‘protecting slavery’, it was a thousand times more about protecting their sovereignty.”
So then you let loose with this counterpoint: “Ah, but secession is illegal for a state and is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution.” (You heard this once somewhere and remembered it, though you never studied this issue for yourself.) You have now revealed your belief B. So I correct you once again: “It was not mentioned in the Constitution because it was the obvious right of a state to leave at any time for any reason. Further, the Tenth Amendment expressly leaves to the States any powers not granted to the federal government and not prohibited by the Constitution to the states. Secession, being mentioned nowhere, would be the perfect example of such a power. Furthermore, several of the Northern states had previously considered seceding from the Union, and in no instance known to me was any objection made at that time on the grounds that secession is an illegal act. Lincoln committed total war against the South to keep them from leaving and taking their business elsewhere.”
Again, your first reaction is “I’ve never heard that“, but upon a little more reflection, you feel compelled to put together this comeback: “That must be some kind of revisionist history.” Thus do you reveal another underlying belief (A), which we shall define as something like: “The history I’ve always heard is the correct history, and anything else is revisionist.”
So in our brief conversation, you have revealed the following erroneous beliefs, one built upon or entangled with another:
- E. Lincoln saved the Union.
- D. Slavery was tearing the nation apart; the war was about slavery.
- C. The Southern States started the Civil War, firing with no right.
- B. It is unconstitutional for a state to secede from the Union.
- A. What I have always heard is true, even though I haven’t vetted any of it. Anything I haven’t always heard is probably untrue.
Thus have we now peeled away the layers, as with an onion, to reveal the undesirable core. Your belief A is something that you would never say in passing. You would never mention this at a party, nor write it on Facebook. Neither do you even repeat it to yourself. Yet this is what you believe–as irrational, foolish, and indefensible as it is. And it is this belief that both underlies and effects your beliefs all the way down the line from A to E.
And that returns us to the question “How can I tell you?” How can we discuss E if your belief on E is based on D, C, B, and ultimately, A? Indeed, D, C, and B are mere errors of fact, but A is in a class of its own; it is a philosophical root, and an irrational one at that. It is an insane venture into unreality, pretending that just somehow, you who rarely study anything, have come to all the right beliefs about things, and have never once been duped or made a bad assumption. Though you haven’t “done the math” to figure out how absurd it is, what you are doing in reality is the equivalent of setting yourself up as the consummate “special case”—a person who is right on all matters. No, you would never say that, and that’s not even the way you think about yourself, but that’s the way you operate, more or less. And if not in this exact way, you operate just one step from it by pretending that all things about which you don’t already have a belief are simply not important enough to look into. Thus do you protect your “A” like an inner sanctum, a “Holy of Holies”, never to be questioned, invaded, or put to the test.
This is pretty much the definition of “incorrigible“. It’s not that you would ever say that you are beyond correction, or that you even think of yourself this way. No, it’s your nasty habit of considering as unimportant whatever you have never “heard before” or whatever contradicts what you have “always heard”. Simply put, then, the facts of a matter are just not important enough to you to move you to study the matter. You do not mind if you are wrong. Interestingly, however, you mind thinking you are wrong, so you tell yourself to think that you are right, even if you are not certain of it—and sometimes, even when you know you are not right. You make excuses and substitutes. “Well, I might not be exactly right, but I’m close enough,” you might say. Or, “Nobody knows for sure, so I’m going to keep believing it my way until somebody proves me wrong.” And you may even commit the logical fallacy called the appeal to consensus or appeal to popularity: “I hear what you’re saying, but millions of patriotic Americans could not be wrong.” Or perhaps you have found that your conscience is satisfied with a mere good intention: “Well, I suppose I should look into that some day.” But you never do, and before long, you find yourself repeating your original belief as if it were fact and as if it had never been brought into question, and as if you had not decided that you should indeed look into it further.
So at length, we discover that I am trying to correct a person who does not really care about getting the facts straight. You care enough to pretend you care, but not enough to do the research. This is why you are much more comfortable in the company of people who already believe as you do than in the company of those who try to investigate a thing before believing it. The former never challenge you, while the latter are constantly rubbing raw your core belief A.
You may even formulate a defensive belief that it is somehow wrong to try to correct others—that I should never have challenged you on the “Lincoln saved the nation” notion. If you are like so many, you will utterly miss the fact that in our debate, you endeavored to correct me four times! Thus do you show that you’re not really interested in fair and consistently-applied principles, but merely in self defense by whatever available means can be found—whether honest or not. “Any port in a storm,” goes the old saying.
You tell yourself that you have more important things to tend to at the moment. You tell yourself that I’m just being “critical”, or that I’m just looking to aggrandize or promote myself. You tell yourself that “what’s true for him may not necessarily be true for me.” Whatever it takes to protect your notion A, you will tell yourself, whether it is even remotely true or not.
Thus are you more concerned with your own positive view of yourself than you are with the truth about who you really are. You are the sort that Don Marquis had in mind when he penned:
“If you make people think they’re thinking, they’ll love you; But if you really make them think, they’ll hate you.” ~Don Marquis (1878-1937)
Ironically, if you are like most people, you will find some way to deny all this as you read, and maybe even get mad at me for bringing it up (if you think this article is about you). Yet if this article were not addressed to “you”, but were written instead about “some people”, you’d be thinking of your irrational neighbor or coworker as you read, and you’d say, “Oh, I know an incorrigible person who is exactly like that!” Chances are, though, that you are exactly like that.
So how can I tell you that you’re wrong when you have so many rehearsed reasons not to believe me and when you’re determined to find a way not to care? Shall I humor you and give it a whirl anyway, in hopes that maybe a new idea could sink in after a while? Or should I reconsider my answer to the first question: “Should I tell you?”
I could decide, of course, as many do, simply to remain silent. But what if—just maybe—you are one of those few honest people who will be glad to be set straight and who will thank me for doing it? If you are, I’ll get a hardy handshake. And if you’re not, I’ll probably get either the silent treatment or curses. So my risks in this matter are clear. And what are your risks?
Your risks are either that you remain in error or get your beliefs overturned. Perhaps you should consider having a formal policy as to which is more to be desired.
But Wait, There’s More!
Maybe this discussion can help you understand some other things, too. For instance, maybe you won’t be so quick to reach a convenient conclusion as to why I don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance, why I don’t belong to your favorite political party or church, and why I don’t eat the same food you do. Maybe, just maybe, I’ve done more “math” on these subjects than you have, and have come up with actual reasons to do otherwise.
It will be easier for you to write me off simply as a “strange” person and think nothing more of these things, of course, but should you ever get to thinking, you may just find some meaningful and useful information where I have found it. Truth is a journey upon which any of us may dare to embark. It is a way of life upon which puffed-up people fare poorly, however, for they hate to be tested and corrected, and will not even correct themselves as a matter of habit. Lacking the courage for truth, they will never acknowledge its merits. Thus do they puff themselves up with vain notions, as one puffs himself up and flails his arms to buffalo a bear into thinking twice before he attacks.
The truth, my friends, is not some enemy to be defended against. It is the natural friend and ally of mankind, except for those who have taken up camp with falsehood, whether by mistake, by ignorance, or by deliberate intent. Even in the case of the latter, however, we may soften our hearts to the truth once again and come to our proper senses. It is a choice.