November 19, 2019

“Maybe I’m Wrong”

The words “Maybe I’m Wrong” are not heard much any more, and it is a fair assumption that fewer people than in past generations even think of them. That is because in recent decades the emphasis in education and the general culture has been on self-acceptance, self-congratulation, and self-esteem. (From here on, I will use the simpler term selfism to refer to these three.) This emphasis suggests that questioning what we think, say, or do is a form of self-doubting and self-denigrating that is ultimately self-defeating. According to this viewpoint, our thoughts are “our truth” and “our reality” and we should therefore hold them in the highest regard, be forthright in expressing them, and vigorous in defending them against challenges.

Where has this refusal to admit mistakes taken us? Are we better citizens and neighbors than before—for example, kinder, more understanding, more respectful of others, more tolerant? Are our relationships warmer? Do our institutions function better? Do our elected officials cooperate harmoniously in addressing people’s needs and the country’s problems?

It seems clear that in all these areas we have not advanced as a society but instead have declined. The question is why? How exactly does refusing to admit that we may be wrong affect our relationships with others? And how does it undermine effective government? Here is how:

  • To begin with, two conditions must be met before we can admit we may be wrong. First, we must be open to that possibility. Selfism makes us fear such openness. Secondly, we must have formed the habit of thinking as critically about our own ideas as we do other people’s ideas. Selfism blocks the formation of that habit.
  • Next, in order to find out whether we are wrong in a specific case, we need to search for the relevant facts and, after finding them, to determine whether they support our view or an opposing view. Selfism makes us view such searching and judgment as either unnecessary (why search for truths one already possesses?), as dangerous to our emotional health, or both.

Taken together, these effects of selfism leave us imprisoned in our own subjectivity and inclined to view those who disagree with us as suspect and their views as irrelevant, unworthy, or both. Accordingly, we have little or no interest in learning about opposing ideas or engaging in discussion or debate with those who hold them. At the same time, we are eager to associate with people who agree with us.

This self-imprisonment explains why news organizations are so polarized today, some offering Democrats news that disparages Republicans and others the reverse. Whether this development reflects the internal polarization of the news organizations or is simply a practical business model is debatable, but in either case it has contributed to the divisiveness evident in contemporary America—notably, the alienation of family members from one another and the inability of elected officials to move beyond mutual disparagement long enough to deal with the problems they were elected to solve for the good of the country.

The refusal to consider the possibility that our viewpoints and opinions may be wrong is both a moral and an intellectual failing. On the moral side, it demonstrates a lack of humility; on the intellectual side, the false assumption that we are exempt from the misunderstandings and errors in reasoning that plague the rest of humanity.

There is no quick way to restore humility and sound reasoning to an entire culture, but there is a way to do so over time. That way is to reinstate the educational reform known as the Critical Thinking Movement that began in the first half of the twentieth century and gained prominence in the latter half. Two of the best features of that movement were its focus on sound, objective reasoning and its central premise that critical thinking should be applied not only to other people’s ideas and judgments but also, and in some ways more importantly, to one’s own.

The first step toward restoration is for educators to stress with students that finding their own errors before broadcasting them avoids embarrassment and enhances rather than diminishes their self-respect. The second step is for teachers to model sound thinking themselves and demand it from students. The third step is to promote the ideals of humility and sound reasoning in the community and the media.

Copyright © 2019 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

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Written by
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America's Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.

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Written by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero
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