When Being Right is Wrong

September 23, 2008 | 18 comments
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If you’re a teacher of any sort, you know how disruptive a couple of talkative or rude students can be, especially when you’re trying to get a discussion going.

In an effort to regain control, you flash a forced smile in the direction of the goof-offs. You pause and wait until they’re finished before you continue. You have a chat with them after class and ask them to be a little more attentive next time. And then after another day or two of rudeness, and despairing that your more subtle techniques have failed, you lose patience and let them have it, right in the middle of class.

And rightly so. They deserve it. They’re ruining the learning experience for most everyone around them, and showing little respect for you and the effort and thought you’ve put into the subject at hand. You don’t even have to yell: just a few choice words will vanquish them.

There’s just one problem. Your tongue-lashing shuts not only them up, but everyone else too. Now no one will talk. You’ve killed whatever good feeling was in the room–killed it more than those students were killing it. Now you’re the one ruining the learning experience for everyone. You were right, those kids deserved it. But you were wrong as well. Wrong in how you handled it. Wrong in your tone, and delivery. Wrong in your meta message, which was (whether you meant to say so or not) that you probably don’t care enough about the offenders to figure out an approach which not only solves the problem but allows the offenders to feel that they still matter to you. And thus, just plain wrong.

Obviously you don’t have to be a teacher to be familiar with the paradox of being right and yet wrong. It can happen in various settings, including of course your home. If you’re a parent, you often know that the substance of what you’re saying to your child is right, yet somehow you can still feel lousy, even wrong, after winning a particular battle. Usually because of how you won it. Or because you looked at it in the context of winning and losing. An unkind tone or sarcasm or impatience or arbitrary reliance on authority says (whether you mean it to or not) that you really don’t care about the child as much as your words suggest.

Why wouldn’t the paradox apply to blogs as well, or any other sort of public forum for discussion, especially those with religious claims? 3 Nephi 11:28 gives a good clue that there was a lot of well-meant but ill-natured discussing going on over doctrine even before blogging was invented, and verses 29 and 30 clarify it as “disputing” and its companion “contention.” I infer from this and from experience that the problem doesn’t lie in discussing doctrine but in disputing it; not in disagreeing but in contending. Good-willed discussion can push you along and stretch you and thus help you to understand. Disputing brings in ill will and rigidity, and makes the discussion more about winning an argument than advancing understanding. Disputing puts the need to be right about a given doctrine above the doctrine that matters most: love and respect for one another. I Corinthians 13 applies here too: we can have all the insight in the world, all the one-upsmanship in the world, but if there’s no charity, or good will in the discussion, then it’s empty and vain, and therefore wrong.

Thus in a religious sense any discussion is partly about the subject at hand, but mostly it’s about the conduct of the discussion itself.

The subjects or doctrines under discussion matter, but they matter less than how we treat each other while discussing. If there’s ill will after a discussion or exchange, then the discussion was a failure. Even if we think we won, or were right, we were ultimately wrong.

I’m hardly perfect at the art of good-willed discussion (I hope none of my relatives read this post, for instance, lest they burst out laughing). That’s why I’m thinking about it here before I get blogging on such crucial subjects as the virtue of white shirts. I succumb often to the temptation of supposing that what I have to say is so important and convincing and obviously true that I’m going to say it bluntly at all costs, including the cost of good will with someone else, because the world needs to hear it, because a person just has to stand up for what’s right. And then I’m proven wrong again. My stated message turns out once more to be less consequential than my unstated meta message.

Instead of standing up and dividing, maybe I should have done some sitting down and reconciling. With my students, or kids, or fellow bloggers.

Good-willed discussion makes everything a lot more pleasant. Ironically, it also better promotes understanding of substantive issues: for when ill will takes over, the substantive issue becomes secondary to the desire to show someone up. And the results are predictable: calling names, questioning motives, and distorting the arguments and evidence from the other side, all in the name of winning and defending an unbending position.

I’m sure I’m not saying anything new to readers here. There’s already a lot of good-willed discussion at T&S, and any adult is familiar with the right-but-wrong paradox. But I want to plaster this ideal on my forehead before plunging in, lest I get a little snippity in discussing how many angels can stand on the head of a pin, or its modern equivalents. If a boxing referee can say “Let’s keep it clean” before two guys go out and bludgeon each other, then we who enter the discussion ring should be able to commence with a similar mantra, and actually mean it. At least I tell myself.

18 Responses to When Being Right is Wrong

  1. Julie M. Smith on September 23, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    Great post. Thank you.

  2. Steve Evans on September 23, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    What Julie said.

  3. Roland on September 23, 2008 at 4:40 pm

    At least in blogs it’s pretty easy to bann users who post disruptive or off-topic comments. (Try that in Sunday School or Seminary.)

  4. iguacufalls on September 23, 2008 at 5:37 pm

    If you try that in Sunday School or Seminary, you get a lecture from the Bishop about how those kids are now inactive and it’s your fault.

  5. Ryan on September 23, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    Julie and Steve,

    How could you suggest that it was a good post?!? I can tell from your tone that you don’t support the brethren and that you are languishing in apostasy.

    Lucifer basks in your unbelief and unrighteousness that combine to create unberightileifousness.

    Romney (or any other Mormon candidate) in aught-twelve FTW!!!

  6. Reeder on September 23, 2008 at 7:16 pm

    I appreciate these sentiments. That’s pretty much why I avoid responding to ill-willed comments in my internet projects. Although I could effectively respond to their points, most are just trying to bait someone into an argument, with or without the switch. However, sometimes I wonder about others who might read these unanswered comments and thereby conclude that their arguments have merit. Would it be wise to respond for their sakes? Or should I continue to just ignore these “few barking dogs [that] snap at the heels of the weary travelers”?

  7. Ben on September 23, 2008 at 7:29 pm

    Great post.

    I promise I will try not to “dispute” anything in your class tomorrow afternoon. :)

  8. Kylie Turley on September 23, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    Good advice, Craig. I rarely have problems in classroom situations, though it has happened. It’s those persnickety personal situations in which I constantly have to remind myself that keeping the Spirit is more important than being right. Because I am (right).

  9. mlu on September 23, 2008 at 10:33 pm

    Disputing puts the need to be right about a given doctrine above the doctrine that matters most: love and respect for one another. I Corinthians 13 applies here too: we can have all the insight in the world, all the one-upsmanship in the world, but if there’s no charity, or good will in the discussion, then it’s empty and vain, and therefore wrong.

    Not to disrupt the good feeling, but it’s also possible to be full of warmth and acceptance while being dead wrong. I rather think about half of our current economy runs on peddling wrong views but with a nonjudgmental warmth that is far more appealing to some people than sound doctrine, which often has an edge.

    I don’t think I could say love matters more than truth, though since the two converge it gets tricky to separate them in hard cases.

    When dealing with well-intentioned but misguided people, a soft approach may be best. But when dealing with jerks, a sort of unvarnished candor is sometimes called for, of the “O ye liars and hypocrites” variety.

    The edge I try to hold: not unkind and not untrue. A poet used the phrase–maybe Marvin Bell, but I don’t recall. By and large, I think T&S maintains that edge marvelously well.

  10. Ray on September 23, 2008 at 11:39 pm

    Nice post, Craig. One point only:

    Meekness does not require weakness.

  11. Hellmut on September 24, 2008 at 12:30 am

    Gentlemen, we can all sing together but we cannot all talk together.
    Usually does the trick.

  12. Tatiana on September 24, 2008 at 6:36 am

    Good reminder, Craig, for both home and blogging for me.

  13. Peter LLC on September 24, 2008 at 7:26 am

    That’s why I’m thinking about it here before I get blogging on such crucial subjects as the virtue of white shirts.

    See, there you go being sarcastic again and yet people will 1) praise you for your insights and 2) keep coming back for more. I suspect this is due to the low costs of participation in and un(en)forced membership of blogging communities, factors that tend to facilitate gatherings of the like-minded and are unlikely to be replicated in the classroom.

  14. Lupita on September 24, 2008 at 11:25 pm

    Ouch. A little too close to home…esp. with my kids. I’m going to try harder tomorrow.

  15. Frank McIntyre on September 25, 2008 at 3:54 pm

    I’m consistently the most obnoxious one in my classes so I never have this problem.

  16. Jonovitch on September 30, 2008 at 1:27 pm

    I have a friend who taught seminary (in Utah?) for a couple years. He snapped at one of his students once, in front of the rest of class, and lost him for the rest of the year.

    His anecdote reinforced to me the concept of reproving immediately and quickly (not bringing it up a month later, and not belaboring the point for minutes on end), doing so privately when possible (never ever in public), being specific and precise (not broadly generalizing), and always showing more love afterward. Always let them know you care (this is most important of all).

    Jon

  17. Marianne on September 30, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    My older brother and I are pretty close in age creating a natural competitiveness between us, and in high school he became the debate king and now he’s an attorney (and we’re all sarcastic). I learned a while back that sometimes the best thing in our relationship is to let him win because then I get what I want, which is peace. Which means that really I WIN!!

  18. Jonovitch on October 1, 2008 at 3:20 pm

    Have you ever been in an “interview” with the bishop that you just wish would end so you simply clam up and wait for him to stop talking? That’s the feeling I was reminded of when I read Marianne’s comment (17). The sooner I can get out of that office, the sooner I can get back to doing my best to improve my life, rather than hearing all about how I should be doing my best to improve my life. Granted some people need a good chastisement now and then, but not every single time.

    This could get me into trouble, because our current first counselor knows my pseudonym (hi!), but this is not about my current bishop. I’ve had a number of them who have felt the need to preach and warn and exhort more than they felt the need to encourage, uplift, inspire, motivate, enlighten — which is really what we need when we’re down, right? (See also the recent post on Shame.)

    Jon