Political lifehack: assume you’re wrong

November 19, 2016

I’ve cultivated a useful trick over the past couple years. When someone makes a point, and it doesn’t seem right to me and I want to argue back, I pause. Before I say anything, I ask myself a question: “What if I’m wrong?”

I’ve found that when I start from a point of certainty, I don’t listen. I’m just thinking about what I’m going to say next. But when I start out questioning, and accept that I might be wrong, I come from a place of openness and empathy. Plus, If I accept that maybe they’re right, I’m forced to defend my position to myself—and find out in real-time whether it passes muster.

This keeps me from doing stupid things, like minimizing the view points of people unlike myself—women, minorities, foreigners, or even just people who hold “strange” opinions that I find mystifying. From my straight white healthy male perspective, a lot of how this world is set up seems to make sense—but if I assume my assumptions are wrong, I can get in the other person’s head, and see it from their eyes.

And if I do that, and still decide I’m right? That’s a much more comfortable position to be in. There’s less uncertainty when I’ve already confronted that uncertainty, and have decided, to the best of my ability, that I’m correct. Until the issue comes up again, of course.

This muscle is getting a workout in the wake of Trump. Recall this tweet:

Two of my oldest friends—both white guys—said this to me. Meanwhile, one of their wives was freaking out after the election, because she’s a counselor at a battered women’s shelter, and she now has to talk to clients who see their abusers in their president. And when I assume that my starting point of view, as shared by my white male friends, might be wrong—

Holy fuck. That’s not good. Because the viewpoint of my friend’s wife, and of her clients, makes a lot of sense. I can see their point of view clearly once I get out of my own way. John McCain or Mitt Romney might have been bad for them, in the same way that nonthreatening Paul Ryan and Mike Pence will be bad for them, but their abject fear of Trump is perfectly understandable. My starting position, I think, is wrong.

This cuts all ways. The tactic forces me to look at much of what Donald Trump and his supporters are saying, and question: “What if they’re right?” And I can understand where some of their beliefs stem from. Trump’s solutions are so much simpler, the story he’s telling so much easier and cleaner to grasp, than what Hillary was offering. I can understand its appeal.

—even if, after I think everything through, I remain steadfast in my beliefs. I don’t think I’m wrong in this. The world is complicated, and their simple solutions will not work—in fact, they’ll make most everything worse. History bears this out, and while history doesn’t always repeat itself, I think it’s unwise to assume that this time will be different. Many have died thinking that.

Confront the possibility that you might be wrong. This will give you empathy even for those you feel are alien or vile, which is not a healthy way to treat fellow human beings. They could very well be right. And if not, then you’ll know—and you can fight against their ideas with all your might.

(There’s another aspect to this: after an election season of getting almost everything wrong, my assumptions could be wrong again. Trump could still be the New York Democrat he used to say he was, and he could govern as a sort of bigoted moderate rather than a fascist kleptocrat. I could be wrong. But I will be watching.)

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By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.

1 Comment

  1. Reply


    Much better. See, this I get (not so much the hysteria over readily disproved media misrepresentation), but I can appreciate a loyal opposition prepared for the worst.

    Because at the end of the day, I think most of us disagree on the means, not so much on the goals. If Trump’s goals turn out to be something much worse than he’s said… Well, we probably have more than a few lines in the sand in common. Keeping a level of respect and empathy between both sides makes it much easier to unite in common cause when needed.

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