The #Eggboy Debate Proves In 2019 It's Never Okay To Be Wrong
Possibly the wisest thing I’ve ever heard was said by a friend of mine (I won’t name her: you don’t know her anyway), who made the simple statement: “We have to let people be wrong".
At the time it seemed smart. As years go by it seems more and more profound to me, because one thing we, as a species, are less and less inclined to do is let each other be wrong. By that I mean, we tend not to be able to see someone be wrong without deciding that that person must be denounced and, if possible, condemned.
Such, at any rate, is the case on the battlefield of social media. In an age when anyone with an opinion is free to broadcast it to the world, it’s been decided that on any issue, there is one single correct position and anyone who refuses to take that position is the Enemy. In our quest to purge the world of injustice, we have declared zero tolerance on wrongthink.
There is nothing wrong with believing yourself to be right. In fact, not only is there nothing wrong with it, it’s literally the only state in which a human being can exist. Any sensible person accepts the possibility that they may be wrong, but no person can believe they ARE wrong at any given point in time: if they believed they were wrong, they would stop believing the thing that made them wrong, and immediately start believing they were right again. Yes, I’m pretty sure that made sense.
Equally, there is nothing wrong with strongly opposing those with whom you disagree. Some people’s wrong opinions are so wrong as to be reprehensible. Where we decide to fight our battles is determined by where we find the differing worldviews of others so beyond the pale that common ground is impossible.
Where I see the whole thing breaking down is the tendency to declare that every differing worldview is beyond the pale: the tendency to frame every disagreement on every detail of every subject as equally bad, the tendency, in short, to say, “you’re with us or against us”. Under this system, we don’t just oppose enemies, we oppose just as vehemently anyone who also opposes those enemies, but in the wrong way.
See, for example, how the egging of Senator Fraser Anning caused a vicious fissure not only between Anning fans and Anning haters, but between those who hate the Senator and loved seeing him egged, and those who hate the Senator and didn’t think the egging was a good idea.
To read the tweets of one side, you’d have thought Egg Boy pulled a knife on Anning. To read the other, you’d imagine that if only someone had egged Hitler in 1933, tens of millions would have lived.
Everyone was incredibly angry and deeply convinced that anyone diverging from their views was literally evil while, to put it mildly, there were bigger stories to be thinking about.
But that’s just one example. You won’t have to search far to find dozens more. Like wartime governments hunting down collaborators, everyone is now on red alert for disagreement even of the mildest and trivial kind, because that signals betrayal of the cause. No longer are those who disagree with us just wrong -- now they are morally bankrupt cowards: at best they’re just as bad as the bad guys; at worst they’re worse, because they should know better.
It’s easy to see why we’re trending this way. These are scary days, when the human race faces existential crises and the most powerful among us seem more determined than ever to crush the rest to preserve their privilege. The threats confronting us appear so overwhelming and so urgent that once one decides that a particular course of action is correct, any objection to that course of action looks like an utter betrayal of one’s fellow human beings.
We can’t afford to amiably disagree anymore, because the stakes are much too high. If we do the wrong thing now, we’re dead -- and what YOU are proposing is clearly the wrong thing, while what WE are proposing is the right thing. What’s more, we all suspect that, deep down, the wrong people KNOW they’re wrong and are being both dishonest and selfish by not agreeing with us.
And so we arrive at the point where we fight not just against racism, but against anyone who won’t deal with racism in the prescribed manner.
We fight not just against climate change deniers, but against anyone whose approach to climate change denial isn’t the one we prefer.
We fight not just against hatred and cruelty and inequality, but against anyone else who is also fighting them, but fighting them differently to us.
And here we are, screaming abuse at anyone who condones violence/doesn’t condone violence/won’t defend free speech/defends free speech too much/is willing to debate opponents/isn’t willing to debate opponents/loves Egg Boy/hates Egg Boy/has no particular opinion on Egg Boy.
This attitude militates effectively against the changing of minds -- of course whether anyone’s mind has ever been changed by an exchange on social media is an open question. But we’ve long moved past the idea that changing people’s minds is a good idea. We Who Are Right don’t attack They Who Are Wrong to change their minds: we do it firstly to signal to the other Right People that we too are Right, and so should be spared the punishment doled out to the Wrong People; and secondly to attempt to make the Wrong People so afraid of being attacked further that they’ll agree to shut up and stop saying Wrong Things out loud.
Of course, the Wrong People all think they’re the Right People, though, so the effect is to split people into increasing numbers of tribes, each forever reinforcing their own sense of Rightness and their intense hatred of Wrongness. And any distinctions between, say, the Very Wrong and the Slightly Wrong, or the Maliciously Wrong and the Well-Meaning Wrong, are erased -- there is only Right and Wrong, and you better pick a side, NOW.
But here’s what I think. I think that even in these dreadful, terrifying, anxious times, we still have to let people be wrong. We still have to look at someone saying something we consider absurd and be willing to admit that yes, that person, that INCREDIBLY WRONG person, is still a good person, and is still on my side. Because so often, my side is the one with the numbers, and the will, to win.
Good people who want good things are everywhere, and I don’t want to make them my enemy, even if I think their ideas for achieving those good things are unlikely to do so. I’ll tell them they’re wrong, of course. I’ll try to convince them that my way is better.
Hopefully they’ll try to convince me that their way is better, rather than calling me a centrist or a Marxist or a general waste of skin.
Hopefully we’ll come to some agreement on some things, and even if we don’t, we’ll still be able to proceed on the things we do agree on.
Because I don’t believe that in a time when hate and fear are thriving and tearing societies apart, that the answer is to increase the number of people to hate and fear. I don’t believe that the more enemies I have, the better my chances of making the world a better place. I don’t believe that respectful disagreement is outdated in 2019’s state of universal emergency, because I believe that retaining the capacity for respectful disagreement is a necessity if we’re to unite enough humans to actually save ourselves.
I believe that when we find common ground we should be looking for reasons to cultivate it rather than burn it.
But of course I could be wrong.