The Moral Necessity of Being Wrong
We live in a cultural moment that vigorously punishes mistakes, often in a very public fashion. Indeed, this is one of the key aspects of our deeply polarized landscape. Yet, if we aren’t allowed the freedom to make mistakes—to be wrong—moral growth is short circuited. In this episode, Nathan and Cameron discuss how mistakes can be an occasion for tremendous growth, rather than simply shame and retribution.
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Nathan Rittenhouse: Hello, and welcome to Thinking Out Loud. Thinking Out Loud is a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope. I'm your co-host, Nathan Rittenhouse.
Cameron McAllister: And I'm your co-host, Cameron McAllister.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Cameron, there is so much going on in our world right now on so many different levels. I mean, when we think about kind of, probably the big categories of what it means to be a culture, a society, everything right now from economics to healthcare, certainly policing, international relationships, religious organizations and their freedom, freedom of speech. I mean, those are massive categories and it seems like almost every one of those, as I don't think anything new there, but certainly there's a new fervor in each of those categories. And maybe the interconnectedness of them brings things to light.
So we're still in a time at this recording of great protest in our country over topics of justice. And in the midst of that, as important as all of those conversations are to be having, there are other things that are happening at the same time that without sounding dismissive of some of the bigger issues, I think there are some actually sizable issues bubbling up underneath this that would be worth talking about. And just thinking a little bit out loud with you about the future of where some of these ideas are headed. And I think one of those that and we could go a thousand different directions just under that category, but one of the ones that I would like to chat with you about is, what's become a news item about news organizations, and that is Senator Tom Cotton's article in The New York Times. Likely people listening to this will have seen it. And the content of the article is not what I want to discuss with you. It's the response to it.
And just for some setup. So during the time of protest, President Trump had advocated for using the military to backup to restore order, backup police forces or whatnot in different cities, of course, that led to more protesting. But what happened is that Senator Tom Cotton wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times about this. And I think anytime there's a US senator who writes an opinion piece that isn't seen as terribly ridiculous, The New York Times published it. And then let's see, that's been a couple of days ago. And as of now, the editor just resigned from The New York Times last night or this morning. So there's the shockwave went through The New York Times and they also had their highest rate of people dropping their subscriptions to The New York Times ever in the history of The New York Times because of this piece.
Now, once again, we're not talking about the content of the piece, but the idea here is that there is a massive backlash within the staff of The New York Times of saying, that actually this article is inciting violence and therefore doesn't meet the standards of The New York Times. At first, the kind of senior leadership there pushed back and said, “Look, we know that you guys don't agree with this. We don't either, but it's important for us as a news organization to publish opinions that we disagree with. That's part of how journalism goes.” And then there's been, sort of, a walk through the last several days as they walked that back, now leading to the resignation of the editor in charge of that process. I think it was about 160 of the staff members of The New York Times threatened to virtually walk out.
But anyway, it was the call of saying this is violence against black people to publish this opinion piece. And so that's a, it's, I think a number of news organizations have touched on this because something feels new about that. You know, how does that line of thinking fit with what you observed? And again, here speaking as Americans, we have First Amendment rights and that sort of thing. So there's a free speech issue here. There's a news coverage issue. There's a concept of truth issue. I'm just wondering when you saw kind of how this is playing out as a Christian, what did you think of?
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, I guess one of the key questions that comes to mind these days is, are there viewpoints that are so inimical, so inherently harmful, that they shouldn't be aired or shouldn't be given any kind of voice? That seems to be, well, at least that seems to be, the sentiment with an opinion piece like this. It's not just that people believed it was erroneous or misguided. They felt that it was deeply morally pernicious and also actively harmful to have that piece in print. But it does bring to mind a lot of questions regarding free speech, regarding civil discourse.
We know that there's, of course, the line between something that's uttered or written, published, especially in an organ as influential as The New York Times. We know that that does affect action, but in times past, at least I think a lot of responsible journalists, particularly chief editors would believe that part of what helps a democracy to function would be the ability to give voice to sometimes dissenting opinions, different opinions, and to allow them the voice to speak. I mean, it's very clear that, to the leadership on this paper, that they were in deep disagreement with what was said. I guess there's a rough parallel here, Nathan, and you can chime in here and tell me if you think that this is accurate, between some of the disinvitation, or student reactions and protests that have happened at university campuses when certain speakers have been invited and-
Nathan Rittenhouse: You're talking about cancel culture.
Cameron McAllister: ...Yeah, the kind of cancel culture that was really pretty for a while, there was a huge media focus on that. It seems a long time ago now, in a pre-COVID world. But yeah, you had, and usually these were thinkers who were probably were highly conservative in a lot of their political convictions, and had maybe given voice to some very controversial convictions in the past or in print. And so they were invited in a spirit of kind of, “Hey, let's have a discussion of our deep disagreements.” Let's do so in an open forum setting with vigorous kind of intellectual challenges that will be brought to bear here. Often the moderator or the person who was the inviting party were themselves, somebody who were progressive in their thinking often in deep disagreement with the speaker, but yet you'd see these massive protests erupt. Sometimes there was even at, I think Middlebury College in particular, was kind of, became, a fairly notorious example because things turned violent there. Do you think that, I mean, do you see a kind of a rough parallel here?
Nathan Rittenhouse: So two things to in response and the first one is, I just want to point out to all the listeners that Cameron just coined a new definition of BC, “Before COVID,” so that'll be a new dating era.
Cameron McAllister: There you go.
Nathan Rittenhouse: But one of the similar themes there is that it seems, and this is going to get into the weeds here a little bit, but it seems like we've broadened the definition of violence. So these speakers can't speak because they're inciting violence. We can't have this opinion piece by a senator in the paper because it's inciting violence. And then also the response to that is violence. And so I think it's a line that your dad has used, that “America has become addicted to the violence narrative.” That basically anything that disagrees with me is violence or justifies violence on my part.
Cameron McAllister: And side note for listeners, my dad is Stuart McAllister.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, that's right. Let's give the full footnote there. I mean, so isn't that part of it too though, is that you can't have civil discourse because there isn't a possibility that I'm wrong. It's just the possibility that you're evil. I mean, is that kind of what's going on here? That I'm not even willing to listen to your opinion or your other argument because I've made a predetermined, I have an or prior commitment to you being wrong. Therefore, the only thing that can come out of that is violence.
Cameron McAllister: Sure. Yeah.
Nathan Rittenhouse: And maybe that's too boldly stated, but it just kind of seems like that would be a general outline of the foundation of that frame of reasoning.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah. Well, you brought up two major issues there. The one is the expansion of the term “violence,” which merits, I could merit a book, a podcast in and of itself. Yeah. So I think let's bracket the expansion of violence for just a second and then go to the kind of demonizing villainizing point you were making there, building off of that. So what I come back to, again and again, from the book, The Coddling of the American Mind, which we've discussed before in which we both recognized as quite valuable.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Jonathan Haidt needs to be in this conversation.
Cameron McAllister: Jonathan Haidt and I always get-
Nathan Rittenhouse: George Lukianoff.
Cameron McAllister: ...Is it Mark Lukianoff or is it Greg?
Nathan Rittenhouse: I think it's George or it's Greg.
Cameron McAllister: No, it's not George. I got this right.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Somebody listening to this podcast should figure that out.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah. So Lukianoff is his last name, but one of the great untruths that they highlight that's taken hold on university campuses, but it's not just confined to university campuses is that life is a battle between good people and evil people. And this is a really hard one for us as a broad culture to swallow. As Christians, it shouldn't be as difficult because Christians will recognize that all human beings are fallen and in desperate need of God's grace. Therefore, just play this out practically, if you believe that your "opponent" is not just misguided or wrong, but that they are evil, then you've got an ends justifying the means scenario. This is what Haidt and Lukianoff point out.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. And I just looked it up. It is Greg Lukianoff. So thanks to the Google button on the internet machine.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah. So basically you're justified in basically doing anything against them. You can go, I mean, there's really no limit on how far you can go because after all, you're fighting somebody who's evil, you're fighting a villain-
Nathan Rittenhouse: You're righteous.
Cameron McAllister: ...and you're righteous. And see it also, the insidious fact here is that it takes you off the hook in your mind. And so you occupy this moral high ground. And I mean, if there's anything that we can learn from the history books, it's that an unchecked sense of moral superiority is incredibly dangerous.
Nathan Rittenhouse: So are you suggesting, and maybe I'm putting words in your mouth, that we're almost, that some of the...are we subconsciously operating with a holy war mindset?
Cameron McAllister: It certainly looks that way a little bit when you actually play this out. And so in the case of this New York Times debacle with Senator Tom Cotton, you're seeing a complete inability to separate a person from their ideas. And it seems to me that that's a really important practice. Now I know that we want to see life in holistic terms as well. And so there is a sense in which a person's ideas are intimately related to who they are as a person, but at the same time, we need to recognize the distinction between an opinion column and a person's actual personality as well. So to conflate the two is very naive and it's a big mistake because, you've written articles, Nathan. I've written articles. What you find in the highly controlled stylized and distilled version of an article is hardly a total blueprint of a personality. So I think there's that inability to separate the person from their ideas, the person from their work as well. I mean, we can't discuss ideas, we can't have these discussions unless we can make that separation it seems to me. Am I wrong or?
Nathan Rittenhouse: No. Well, and I guess part of what I'm lamenting here is a loss of education, if I could put it that way in the sense that actually it would be in my mind, it would be a moral against your character if you don't have some more deeply developed ideas, insights, and ways of being ten years from now than you do right now.
Cameron McAllister: Sure. Right.
Nathan Rittenhouse: I mean, in a genuine educational setting, there's a sense in which we should have the right to be wrong because it's through engaging with people that we find out that we're wrong and that we get corrected and move in the right direction. And so with-
Cameron McAllister: Wait, we got to amplify that because that's really important. So you're saying that being wrong is part of your moral development as a person.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Absolutely. Don't you think?
Cameron McAllister: Oh, yes. I think so. And so you're saying then, and let me just, let me return the favor, Nathan, and put some words in your mouth.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Please do.
Cameron McAllister: So you're saying, for the good of our own moral development, we need to be able, we need to allow people room, within reason, to be wrong so that they can grow. And by implication, Nathan, you seem to be saying that this instant cancel culture short circuits a person's genuine development of a person's character?
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yes. That is, I appreciate the way you put those words in my mouth. So, but the pushback to that then is, is that there are some ideas that are so bad, that even suggesting them kills people.
Cameron McAllister: Right. So let's go back to the violence thing then a little bit, because it has a bearing here.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. Well, so I mean, so we're in our mid-30s and I mean, I remember having, let me put it in a phrase like this. I remember having a sociology class with a professor that we argued about everything you could possibly think of. It was a total blast. There was one point when she was literally banging her head off the whiteboard yelling, “No!”, repeatedly in response to something that I said. It was a ton of fun. And even years after when I would see her, I would say, "You know what," I said, "you know, and thinking about it, I'm sorry for some of the grief I gave you." And she would laugh and say, "You were one of the most fun students that I ever taught." And of course she knew when I was just...You know, she would say something and then I would run it to its logical conclusion or maybe a little bit farther just to see what I could get away with.
And there was this respectful, hilarious disagreement that she saw it as part of her role as my professor to push my buttons and to push me beyond the realm of things that I had thought of and to make me see that I was wrong. And sometimes I was, and sometimes I wasn't, I'll still maintain that, but there was a certain delight in that process for me that I loved. And so what I'm seeing happen in some of our national media public discourse, is we're crushing something beautiful that makes us part of who we are. And there are many justifiable reasons for that, but I'm just saying, let's not forget to lament the loss of something deeply formative and good in its own way. I don't know. There's something the theory will here that it seems like we're losing. And I can't quite put my finger on it.
Cameron McAllister: Well, the other feature here that comes to mind for me is that we need to be allowed room to be wrong, and increasingly in the sort of new shame and honor dynamic of our culture, that seems to be getting short circuited. That is the freedom to be wrong and to grow. It brings to mind that one episode that Alan Jacobs talks about in How to Think, where he talks about the long now foundation in San Francisco, which is an esteemed debate society. And they have this one kind of esteem tradition, where if you, I think the language they use is break on the floor. It's a question for people who I think, who are applying, if you've ever broken on the floor, and breaking on the floor means that in the midst of a debate, you changed your mind and you admit it to everybody there, those who are in opposition to you and the audience, and that's considered a very good thing. That's considered a high quality in a candidate, and it struck me as-
Nathan Rittenhouse: But-
Cameron McAllister: ...But, but. Oh no, here we go.
Nathan Rittenhouse: ...that's an extremely small percentage of the population that's operating with that mindset right now.
Cameron McAllister: Well, so that's what I'm getting at. So we, on the one hand, it's good for you and I to decry the kind of the loss of that freedom to be wrong and the instrumental role it plays in our moral development, but another major problem that we have, and by the way, we should say, the items that we're enumerating here, the problems are happening across the spectrum. We're equal opportunity offenders here. We're not singling out any one particular or one group here by any means. This is the air that all of us are breathing. The part that's very hard for all of us to a man it seems to me is the ability to actually admit when we are wrong. That's part of what's vanishing as well.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Right because...So you said “the right to be wrong.” And I think we could even broaden a little bit to say the right to be human in that it's not like we're pre-programed-
Cameron McAllister: Of course. Yeah. To err is to be human.
Nathan Rittenhouse: ...Well, somebody wise should have said that. That it's not like at the ripe old age of 23, we're now locked into everything that we know to be true. It's almost like we've stereotypically, there's always kind of the parental joke about the sixteen-year-old knowing everything. It's like we've just shifted that back ten or fifteen years now, or forty years where all of us know everything and we're experts. I mean, well, and that's a whole ‘nother thing about how we all became expert at criminal justice, epidemiology, politics, all those things. Instantly Google lets us be PhD-level experts on everything. But setting that aside, of just the reason that you can't break on the floor in modern public discourse, is because people don't see that as a development. They see it as hypocrisy. And I see it as human.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah. And it's-
Nathan Rittenhouse: And flush that out for me.
Cameron McAllister: ...Well, I mean, part of this is, it's a developing dynamic. And I think these are some of the issues that historians, sociologists and philosophers have thought are going to be parsing for years to come. Part of it seems to be that there's this intense pressure to hold your ground and not admit when you're wrong, because there's an intense atmosphere of partisanship, we're very politically—we're polarized, but what that means is many of us, if we don't watch ourselves, we're ideologues. And so if you're and the word “ideology” is fiercely debated. It's a word that's almost as controversial as the word “fundamentalist,” right?
Nathan Rittenhouse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Cameron McAllister: But generally speaking ideology, the practical implications of that are that you're so committed to a particular cause that you are loyal to it even at the cost of truth. Right. So you screen out anything that conflict with that narrative. And life is, of course, a whole lot more complex and rich than that. And so part of what an ideologue will do, and again, it takes one to know one, I'm not speaking as though I'm someone who's serving this from some pristine mountaintop, but one of the ways you can do that screening out, is that people who are your repugnant cultural other, those who you disagree with the most vehemently. I mean, you can basically, you can put them into their little category and you can shut off all of the traits that actually make them human.
And so all of that, I mean, if you're fiercely, if you believe that your commitment to a particular cause is a matter of loyalty and a matter of your own integrity, yeah, that's going to make admitting that you're wrong very hard. I mean, and let's face it. I mean, admitting you're wrong is not easy. It's difficult, it's humiliating. And again, we have a culture that really punishes you for getting the cultural script wrong. But again, I think this is where, let's bring in our Christian faith a little bit here, Nathan, because I think this is where Christians actually have a leg up because Christians have, I believe a deeply realistic view of the human heart and our own pension for error and our own pension to go off course and to make terrible mistakes. And that's why I think, yeah, even in the church, we have a hard time. We love to talk about reconciliation. We still, we struggle a little bit with repentance.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. We like to operate in the digital mode of deletion, deleting rather than repenting.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, I think so, because if we're not checking ourselves and again, correct me, if I'm wrong, just cut me off here, Nathan. If I'm wrong, I'm thinking out loud here, this is what we do, but these lines of thinking again, this is the air we breathe. And this is always the case that the church finds itself in the world. And it's always a struggle to be in the world and not of the world. So this is the air we breathe. And so this line of thinking, this kind of fierce ideological loyalty often infiltrates the church as well, or it filtrates us as Christians. And so we need to constantly check our hearts to make sure that... That's why when we repeatedly bring up, we've done this so often throughout the show, that it's so important that we don't demonize and villainize others, that we don't absorb that life is a battle between good and evil people script.
That really is a matter of your own moral wellbeing. Because if we get sucked into this world where basically we're purveyors of just ideological loyalty, then we're in deep trouble. And then we're in danger of entering into that realm of self-righteousness. I mean, I just I always remember Jesus's haunting words there where he says, I came to heal the sick, not those who are well, it says. And that's Cameron's paraphrase. But yeah, I don't want to get to a state personally where I think, “No, I'm all right, I've got it together. I'm secure. It's all these other evil people who are the problem. I don't ever want to get into that headspace. And yet that's very, very easy headspace to get into if we're not actively cultivating an awareness. I think healthy introspection of who we are and recognizing the actual call of the gospel, which begins with us recognizing our own shortcomings, which is tremendously unpopular thing to do.
Nathan Rittenhouse: So yes, it's unpopular, but you have to look at where that gets you. And so there is a battle between good and evil. That's part of the gospel. However, the part that's relevant to this is that evil people become righteous through the work of Christ. It's not a fixed condition. There's real change in the lives of real people that really do matter. So it's the repentance. I mean, we have to have repentance, but you can't just have repentance. You have to also look at redemption and sanctification and the rest of the story there, but just calling somebody evil and then running off to the next chat forum. That's not evangelism.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah. And are you actually interested in persuasion?
Nathan Rittenhouse: Well, there's the question.
Cameron McAllister: I mean, the phrase that Ravi always used, the sort of the Indian proverb, which is so great, “there's no point in cutting off somebody's nose and then giving them a rose to smell.” But that's the MO of so many of us nowadays, if we don't check our hearts first. Do we actually care about...
Nathan Rittenhouse: So the question is, are you stable enough in what you believe to defend more than just yourself?
Cameron McAllister: Bingo. Yeah because if you've got knee-jerk defensiveness, and you want to immediately push delete, cancel, or villainize that also betrays a real lack of confidence, doesn't it?
Nathan Rittenhouse: I think so. Yeah. But the other thing here is as part of an identity too, right, that if... So, what sets up a debate society that allows people to break on the floor and that be lauded as a good thing. In order for that to happen, you have to have a collective agreement on the goodness of truth that we're all working toward. So if you and I are having a discussion about the church, about Christianity, about RZIM, fill in the blank on the many other things that we're both interested in. We're laboring side-by-side for the fruition and the development of a good thing. And so if you point out and air to me, in light of what we both have in common, and the direction that we're headed, then I'm, Oh yeah, let's do that because that actually is better for what it is that we're all about together.
And so as we become more individualistic, we lose a common goal, vision, purpose, and meaning that would give us a shared vocabulary for having the ability to point to something outside of ourselves as the individual that we're both working toward. So if you look at, I don't think it's an accident and it's ontologically true, the familial language used in the New Testament, but Paul disagrees with a lot of people while calling them brothers and saints. And so when you call somebody brother, you're outlining, “Hey, we're part of the same system and we're all working in the same direction here.” And so it's not a condemnation of their character or a fracturing of the relationship. Actually, it's a deepening of a mutual desire to grow in the same direction for the same purpose, which I think would be the core of family and friendship and any organization.
So there's a sense here in which we can't, as we're thinking about our Christian lens on this, rampant individualism also does not contribute to this but church community, any type of community that has a legitimate care for the other, and actually once you started getting through all the qualifiers, the church seems to be in its own category here. But I'm just saying, I'm just pointing out that the identity part of this is a core component of how it is that you'll react to somebody who you disagree with.
Cameron McAllister: Right. And so yeah, you have the moral development aspect of being the freedom to be wrong. And then you've also got a larger commitment and interest in the truth. And I mean, often the truth is subordinate to our own wishes and desires, and that's a uniquely kind of modern or even kind of ultra-modern perspective. Oz Guinness often talks about you move from a position in the past of authority and then to one of preference. And we're definitely in the era of preference, but the interesting point of tension there is also that, as we're looking at our nation truly in an uproar right now, and as we're looking at the foundations of our nation, as we're looking at the deep seated systems of our nation and all the institutions of our nation, there does seem to be a growing interest really in how the realities that have actually shaped these institutions, what actually makes us tick and what we do about it and what real reform looks like.
So there's a lot of unrest, but part of this looks encouraging to me in the sense that there seems to be a growing interest once again, in moving past preference, mere preference, to a real sense of what's actually going on, to an actual commitment, to the truth. And that's sort of an oblique word of, I think, encouragement for me at least.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. Well, I'm just thinking about the life of Jesus as he, if you want a stable and a rooted character, he talks about, I know where I've come from and I know where I'm going. And that that sort of puts down the anchors on either side of him as a character. There were times in Jesus's life when he disagreed with everybody on the face of the earth. Literally, he was rejected by everybody on the face of the earth seemingly. And so the numbers don't matter as much. There is an objective truth that we're longing for and we're seeking. There is a desired way that God has for us to interact with each other. There are descriptions about the reality of evil. There's a joyous proclamation of the reality of redemption and hope and the restoration of things.
There's a deep knowledge of where it is that we come from, clarity on the trajectory of where we're going, a sense of meaning and purpose for what it is that we're doing now and clear outlines to the life and the teachings of Jesus, of how it is that we should behave. And I'm reminded here, as we're saying this, that in Philippians, he kind of is talking about all the different things happening to him. And then he has this little line there that isn't a throwaway line. He says, "But whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel." Very comprehensive, whatever happens.
And so as a Christian living in this time, if we're going to walk in the steps of Jesus and walk in step with the Spirit, then we'll have to use some of the stability that we have because we have these core components of our lives outlined that would grant us the stability to use the excess of the blessing that we have to provide space for others, to reach out to others, certainly to be flexible with other people and other ideas. You might not have the opportunity to turn the other cheek physically this week, but you very well will have the opportunity to turn the other cheek with your words and ideas. And to look at the times in which Jesus, because of the power and the authority and the stability that he had was able to experience a wrong against himself because he saw the bigger picture.
The life of Jesus here really provides an avenue for us. It is not at all the case. People say, “Well, when in Rome, do as the Romans did.” No. It's when in Rome, do as Jesus did. And that's the orienting factor of our lives as Christians. And if we can walk in that way, then that's going to give us the resources and actually the resources that we need for good human interaction come from outside the resources that humanity can conjure up on our own. It's the Spirit of God who works among us that enables these things to happen. And that doesn't nullify the real human responsibility that we have, but it frames it in a bigger context when it feels hopeless, it is hopeless.
If you look at the natural inclination of the human heart to sort these things out, history is against us on our ability to do this, but it isn't hopeless if we play by all of the rules that we're given. And that includes a good God who has a deep love for a world and desires for us to know truth and to live it and to speak it and to walk and work with one another in a way that ultimately brings glory to God and is good for our neighbor. And that is something worth living and speaking of.
Cameron McAllister: Well, that's a good way to bring our kind of meandering thoughts here, I think, to a close. Much more could be said, but again, as is always the hope here, we want to get the wheels turning for you. And maybe in some ways to take you a few more rungs up the ladder so you can kind of survey the cultural maze in which we find ourselves. And so we hope this has been helpful to you. We hope this has spurred you on to thinking and stimulated your thoughts, but you have been listening to Thinking Out Loud, a podcast on current events and Christian hope
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