It is truth universally acknowledged that nobody likes being wrong. Even if you’re as goodnatured as the Dalai Lama, recognizing that you might just have interpreted something wrongly, assumed something unfoundedly, or judged someone unjustly, can be as painful as having your wisdom teeth pulled (and yes, that is a rather fortuitous pun - in the sense that it happened unplanned). However, it is a well-used cliché amongst teachers that if you’re not willing to be wrong, learning will be difficult for you. So while ‘getting it right’ is an obsession of many, ‘getting it wrong’ (and acknowledging it) might just be the best thing you can do.
‘Specious’ has two distinct but related meanings, the first ‘superficially plausible, but actually wrong’, the second ‘misleading in appearance’, especially misleadingly attractive. It derives from the Latin noun ‘species’, which literally means ‘face’. The related adjective, ‘speciosus’ meant ‘good-looking’, and gradually the meaning shifted, until it came to denote ‘seemingly desirable, reasonable or probable, but not actually so’. The origins of this word seems to carry an inherent morality not to take things ‘at face value’. Which, anyone can tell you, is a bad bad thing to do.
Nevertheless, it’s not seldom that when we take a closer look at our opinions and assumptions, we find that they are, in fact, specious. I still remember the embarrassment I experienced when I found out that I’d been pronouncing a word I thought I knew wrongly for years. As a person who is reasonably versed in all things wordy - if I allow myself a moment of vanity - this was hard to admit. Luckily, my peers who proved me wrong aren’t very in-your-face about it, which is comforting. If it were different, it wouldn’t be just humiliating, but also dangerous. The more people give you a hard time about your mistakes, the more you’ll be afraid to make them. Which can make it difficult to admit that you were wrong in the first place. And apart from excessive stubbornness, it’ll make you afraid to open your mouth. Which, unfortunately, is what frequently happens to me if I find out that I got something wrong. I get all red in the face, cast my eyes down and start mumbling incoherently. Then I shut up altogether, and it seems like for the foreseeable future my lips will be soldered together.
And I’m pretty sure that it’s not just me. Though it’s in my nature to be perfectionistic (which doesn’t leave much room for error), the western world often glorifies people who have ‘made it’. Very often, ‘making it’ is depicted as a something elusive and glorious, but while it’s easy to focus on the success-part of the story, it’s less glamorous to consider the other side, which consists of falling down. Many, many times. Whenever we hear inspirational stories, there may be mention of ‘the difficult parts’, but these are only mentioned in function of the subsequent victory, which is rendered even more impressive in the light of these difficulties. But being wrong, in its own right, is never really taken account of.
Luckily, I’m not the only one who believes that many of us are wrong about being wrong. Though it’s difficult to admit that your convictions are specious, it can be the most liberating thing in the world. I recently found a TED speech (TED being a channel of information which I continue to shamelessly use) which tackles the subject of ‘being wrong’. The speaker very astutely states that while we can grasp the notion that the human race in general is fallible, we don’t really believe it applies to us, in the here and now. Which is a problem, because ‘here and now’ is where we live, where we make decisions, where we act. Contrary to our continuous ‘feeling of rightness’, our beliefs don’t actually reflect the external world (how else would you explain the astounding number of people who disagree with you?). This innate human problem, which the speaker calls ‘error blindness’, is furthermore exacerbated by a cultural problem: we see that the people who achieve greatness, are the ones who are right about things. In other words: if you want to ‘make it’, you have to be right.
The rather obvious conclusion I’m working towards is this: there’s nothing wrong with being wrong. It would mean a big step for (western) civilization if we were just a little more aware of our own fallibility and a little less scared of a bruised ego. If we were more willing to be wrong about things, we’d communicate better, we’d think twice before making important decisions, we’d assume less and learn more. The specious nature of our convictions would more easily surface, and we wouldn’t feel the stifling amount of shame about that speciousness as we would nowadays. If we were to adopt such an attitude, we’d be more compassionate, less embarrassed and, on the whole, a whole lot smarter. What’s not to love?