TCS Daily

Right to Be Wrong

By Lee Harris - April 28, 2003 12:00 AM

Many years ago I developed a habit that many people find deplorable: When I discover I am wrong, I change my mind.

To some, there could be no greater indication of an irresolute will; and sometimes when events are happening fast and furious, as during the recent war in Iraq, I must say that I agree with them about this, because my state of mind at such moments displays all the steadiness of a weathervane in a class-5 hurricane. How much better off I would be if I only stop my ears to the siren song of those irritating things called facts-and what an improvement for my readers as well.

For one thing, they could always turn to me with complete confidence that I would continue to agree with them even when there was no longer a reasonable basis for doing so. Imagine, for example, the disorientation a fan of Maureen Dowd would suffer to detect even the slightest hint of a second thought passing, like a summer's cloud, across the imperishable edifice of all her first thoughts, or the psychological consternation a faithful follower of Robert Fisk would feel to open his column one day and discover a new idea planted squarely in the middle of it-and not only a new idea, but one that actually contradicted an old idea.

But in my case, it is even worse. With me, the reader often does not know where I am heading even when I paint him a big sign at the beginning of the journey, such as the one I recently put up before the column called "Bush's Blunder."

After all, when you see a column with a name like that, you have every reason to expect it to be about a blunder that Bush has made, in which case those who like Bush can immediately begin insulting me, while those who loathe Bush can immediately begin insulting him.

So what is my excuse for deliberately misleading my readers in this fashion? And shouldn't I have called my article "Lee Harris' Blunder" instead of "Bush's Blunder," as one of my readers suggested?

No, I shouldn't have. And for one simple reason.

George Bush can make blunders, but Lee Harris cannot. Though this statement is not in fact quite as astonishing as it may appear at first glance.

When I write an article, I am simply thinking. And when you are only entertaining thoughts, it is impossible to make a blunder. You may of course be thinking illogically and inconsequentially, and you may be drawing the wrong conclusions from your premises. But such mistakes are not blunders, for the quite simple reason that you can easily take the mistake back. You can re-think your original line of argument, see where you went wrong, and then fix it-and you can do all of this quite painlessly, but only on one condition.

You must not have acted on your thinking.

Because the moment your thinking terminates in an actual decision, and you commit yourself-and others-to a course of action, then what was originally merely a flaw in one's thinking becomes something radically different. It becomes a blunder.

Consider a game of chess. You may stare at the board and think all sorts of terrible moves, eliminating them if you are a good player, until you finally come across one that isn't terrible-(you hope)-whereupon you commit yourself to it by making your piece move from its old position into a new one.

But this transition is monumental because such an action, by its very nature, cannot be taken back. All action is irreversible, like time itself; whereas all thinking takes place in eternity, and may circle back on itself endlessly.

If we could take back our actions, and start again from square one, by making a wish or jumping into a time machine, the human condition would be an endless comedy, instead of the perennial tragedy that it all too often appears to be. No battle would ever be lost, no business would ever go belly up, no marriage head south.

Intellectuals often tend to forget this great chasm between thinking and deciding; and it frequently causes them to "misunderestimate" the peculiar kind of intelligence that excels in decision-making-the intelligence that makes good poker players and good generals, good CEO's and good football coaches, and good politicians and good statesmen.

A man who is merely thinking may go on thinking forever-there is no deadline to meet, no cut off point, no ultimatum, no lost window of opportunity. He may collect his facts at leisure and invest as much time and energy as he pleases in examining the nature of the purely speculative problem that confronts him. And since he is trying to make up his mind purely for the pleasure of having a mind well made, he may reasonably elect to value the perfection of theory above the urgency of praxis.

No general can do this. Nor can any businessman or politician. Which is why they all tend to make such easy pickings for intellectuals. Men of action must make blunders because they must act. Intellectuals need not because they have the luxury of only having to think.

And this is what I mean when I say Lee Harris can make no blunders. Because in my articles I am not deciding and I am not acting. I am only thinking.

And yet, when I say that I am "only" thinking, this is not to imply that what I am doing is not worth doing, because I think it is. But in order to convince you of this I must first convince you that there is a difference between thinking and something that often passes for it nowadays, a phenomenon that we will call opinionating.

To opinionate is to tell other people that you are right and that they are wrong-unless, of course, they agree with you, in which case they are obviously right as well.

Now anyone can opinionate, though there is a special class of persons called opinion-makes who are paid-often astonishingly well-to opinionate for others. And it is here that we tend to find those towering figures whose admirable firmness of mind we have noticed earlier-those movers and shakers whom no fact can move, and no evidence shake.

So unlike yours truly. Indeed, so far am I from this pole star-like constancy of opinionation, that the best I can offer my readers is a kind of running history of my own errors in thinking. I can show them, as I did in "Bush's Blunder," how my first thoughts crumbled before the onslaught of my second thoughts, but I can do very little more than this. Indeed, I cannot even assure my reader that my second thoughts will not themselves be subject to third thoughts, or even fourth ones as well.

Which is the risk inherent in genuine thinking. If you think long enough, you may end up thinking quite differently from what you thought you were thinking. And this, of course, is the very last thing that many people wish to achieve by reading an article on the Internet or in a newspaper.

Yet it is all that I am qualified to offer in the ones that I write. And those of my readers who ask about my credentials-or, more precisely, my embarrassing lack thereof-are absolutely right to do so, just as Toto was more than justified in pulling back the curtain that concealed the true identity of the Wizard of Oz, revealing him to be a quite ordinary little man and not the puffed up phantom that had so impressed and intimidated Toto's companions.

But there is a distinct advantage to being ordinary and unimportant-people are not afraid of you, in which case they are far more willing to engage in dialogue, and far less likely to regard you as an oracle. And dialogue is the essence of thinking, just as monologue is the essence of opinionating.

Because thinking assumes that at the end of an argument you may actually see something you didn't see before; you might gain an insight that you lacked, or see through a deception that you have practiced all too successfully on yourself.

Opinionating is activity undertaken to reproduce the exact same opinion in the minds of other people. Thinking is an invitation to other people to take a holiday from their normal opinions, provided you are equally willing to take a holiday from your own. It is an adventure in the sense that your destination is often less important than the path you have taken to get to it-unlike opinionating where all that matters is, Do you agree with me, or do you not?

Thinking is a way of transcending the partisan and the partial. It is the urge to establish common ground where none existed. But it can only come about if two sides are equally willing to say, "I was wrong."

Why is this so hard to say?

Being wrong is in fact one of the blessings that only human beings can achieve. Animals cannot be wrong because they cannot be right. God cannot be wrong because he can only be right.

We alone can improve ourselves both by our mistakes and by our blunders-and this is a gift not to be sneezed at.

One tends to forget this simple truth when brought up in an education system which values only getting the right answer, and rewards those who get the right answers as quickly as possible, while penalizing those who get the wrong ones. But it remains a truth nonetheless.

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