It Doesn’t Matter If You’re Wrong as Long as the People You Listen to Say You’re Right

I went to the school board budget meeting last night. It turned out to be a rout in favor of passing the school board, though that just means the towns get to vote on it at the end of the month. Nothing close to this being over yet, alas. There was a much smaller turnout, as well. And for the first while, things were going very smoothly. We were running through the agenda, approving budget articles left and right. No questions. No soap boxes. Just go go go.

And then we hit a few snags.

In a nutshell, there are some people in the community who are convinced that the school board is trying to pull a fast one on them. That they’re using tricks and fiscal sleight of hand to steal money from their pockets. And when you start with that frame of mind, it’s possible to go on a snipe hunt to “catch” the school board at their game. And so we had three or four people get up (some repeatedly) to ask accusatory questions, trying to publicly catch the school board with its pants down. And in each instance, it turned out to be a false accusation (even if in some instances, the people making the accusation refused to acknowledge they were wrong.)

But in general, I’m fine with that. If people have questions, they ought to get answers. And if they don’t like the answers given, such is life. We don’t get to pick our facts. But what got my goat a little last night was when two or three people kept asking the same questions over and over again, as if the answers were going to change if they just kept asking them.

And I understand that they didn’t understand the answers. That they were confused by the answers. But I suppose in the end for me, it isn’t important that every single person in the area understand every detail about the school budget. That’s a goal that isn’t going to be met. And is such a large meeting really the best forum for trying to reach it? There comes a time when you have to call the question and just move on (which is thankfully what happened yesterday evening.)

Denisa and I were talking about it after the meeting, in conjunction with a discussion about the horrific events in Nice last night as well as some other internet discussions I’d come across during the day. And in the end, it all seemed to intersect at one point: narrative. Today, there are many different voices out there, each of them saying something different. (Some louder than others.) And the internet has done a superb job of connecting like-minded individuals. Basically, if you have an opinion, you’re going to be able to find someone who shares it.

And that’s where the trouble can begin. Our lives are shaped by reality, but what “reality” is depends on our point of view. It depends on the narratives we’ve chosen to believe. Take politics. Die hard Republicans all believe one narrative about a person (that Hillary Clinton is a criminal who deserves to go to prison, not back to the White House). Die hard Democrats believe a different narrative. One that is pretty much the exact opposite. Hillary Clinton is falsely maligned and held to an unfair standard, and that she will be a fantastic President. In both narratives, people have facts to back themselves up. But the facts of one side are disbelieved by the facts on the other.

This same principle holds true for so many other things. Take ISIS. You have a group of people who believe they are right. Who are willing and ready to do terrible things in the name of that belief. But the thing is, they don’t think those things are terrible. The narrative they’ve chosen to buy into tells them that those things aren’t just not terrible: they’re necessary. They’re for the greater good. The rest of us can be abhorred and heartbroken over what’s happening, but to the people inflicting those crimes on other? They feel justified. Their narrative supports it.

But it doesn’t have to be so extreme. This crops up everywhere. People who believe video games are great or are the cause of real world violence. People who believe in God and miracles and people who don’t. Basically, pick any hot button topic, and you’ll find this principle at play. In each case, each side is firmly convinced they’re right and the other side is wrong, and they use facts to back themselves up. The other side might dispute those facts, but as I saw yesterday evening, in many cases it doesn’t matter if the “facts” you believe are wrong. What matters is that you believe they’re right, and you have a few people who agree with you.

I don’t mean to turn this into a big discussion on relativism, just a general observation that narrative is so important to all of us. In my experience, the truth is almost always found in the middle spaces. I think in times like these, it becomes increasingly important to listen to both sides in an argument. To acknowledge bias when you have it. To try and be well-informed and not let your personal preference for what you wish the truth were interfere with what the truth is.

Now if we could just figure out how to help everyone do that easily, we’d be set. In the meantime, I think it’s okay to accept that some people will never see the other side. They and their friends will continue to be convinced they’re right. And it’s okay for people to be wrong. Of course, when enough people are wrong (and think they’re right), then you can get into some pretty awful situations . . .

And that’s about as far as I want to think on this Friday.

Leave a comment