In a recent opinion piece, Clive Thompson begins with the question, “What do you do when you discover you are wrong?” (“Retraction Heroes,” by Clive Thompson, Wired, Feb, 2018, pg. 034.) He goes on to extol the merits of an evolutionary biologist, Daniel Bolnick, who published a paper the facts of which he later concluded were in error. To correct those facts, he wrote a retraction. People who love truth more than being right are, in Thompson’s view, a rare breed, seldom acknowledged, but those we should recognize as role models in our society.
Thompson’s question gave me pause, I admit. When I was a child, being discovered wrong probably led to tears or a tantrum. As a teacher, I was seldom wrong. As a politician, never!
In my dotage, the landscape looks different. I don’t like being wrong, but I frequently am, thanks to social media where I brush shoulders with people more learned than I am.
No one likes to be wrong. A person who does should probably seek counseling. Being right affects our self-image — our desire to be thought smart and admired by our “tribe.” Donald Trump is an individual obsessed with being right. Faced with evidence to the contrary, he will twist through all the stages of denial: he didn’t say it; the reporter took him out of context; the report is fake news; it’s a lie and it never happened.
Self-effacement has its quirks, of course. Charles Dickens’ character from David Copperfield, Uriah Heep, transcends where humility is concerned. As he explains to David, he sometimes goes out of his way to make a mistake for the purpose of offering an apology. “People like to be above you…keep yourself down. I am very ‘umble to the present moment, Master Copperfield, but I’ve got a little power!'” (Chapter XXXIX) And indeed he does, using his unassuming ways to flatter and manipulate those who fail to see him as a threat.
Donald Trump and Uriah Heep present two faces of the will to power. The first bullies and lies to secure a place at the top of the mountain. The second feigns humility and like a python rubs its belly along the ground until its coils catch its victim, unaware. What is vice? What is virtue? Throughout history, people have been known to do the right thing for the wrong reason.
Thompson’s premise, that we need role models, makes me wary. How can we ever be sure who is honest and who isn’t? Man is such a piece of work, I suspect we can never be certain of motive. We can only know if we have good intentions. To lead a good life, that is all we need to know on earth and all we need to know. Or, perhaps I’m wrong.