On March 2nd, 2017, I decided to be wrong.
More concretely, I decided to give up being right for Lent. I was motivated by several different things, both abstract and pragmatic. There was my frustration with what I see as a potentially fatal barrier to productive discourse in American society today—widespread self-righteousness—and my desire to change it. There was my interest in how philosophical concepts like self-doubt and self-righteousness interact with religion. And there was my identity as a translator.
Wait, you may be thinking, what does being a translator have to do with any of this?
Well, I’m glad you asked! This is a translation blog, after all. And my view is that a healthy, consciously wielded self-doubt sits squarely at the heart of the translator’s best practices.
Less than a year after I turned translation from my hobby into my profession, I was put in charge of reviewing other anime translators’ work. I was so young—just 23!—and so unestablished that this was a pretty shocking development. I mean, I knew translation was the career for me, but I didn’t think I’d already achieved unparalleled genius in the field or anything. I’m sure that if any of the people whose work I was correcting back then learned my age, they were quite shocked too, if not actively offended.
As it turned out, the fact that I didn’t think I’d achieved genius is exactly what made me a good reviewer. In the beginning, when I looked at a translation of anything more complex than sentences like “Please” and “Thank you,” I’d try to verify, because I didn’t trust my own authority over the other translators’ in any inherent way. I looked up words. I looked up all the words, including the words I already knew. I reread my grammar books to make sure I wasn’t misremembering obscure usages. I asked my mentor when I wasn’t sure I’d figured something out correctly. And I rapidly discovered that this is exactly what the people whose work I reviewed weren’t doing, and therefore the work was riddled with errors. And so I learned that the self-doubt I felt wasn’t just “beginner’s jitters” that more time in the career should alleviate. Instead, it was the most powerful tool a translator can have at her disposal. When we know how easily we can be wrong, we take the steps to try to be less wrong. It might take a few days of bravery to really internalize that you’re constantly teetering on the edge of wrongness, but once you get there, it’s not only empowering: it’s an enormous relief.
You can’t be both a good translator and a self-righteous translator. It’s just not a thing.
Human fallibility, on the other hand, is definitely a thing.
So in the last couple of years, as I’ve seen self-righteousness overcome more and more of society in our religious, political, and social conversations and realized how little we are willing to listen to each other from that place of “healthy, consciously wielded self-doubt” so that we can truly understand and solve problems, the more I’ve thought that this wrongness principle should apply outside of translation. It should apply to our lives across the board: humans are fallible, which means we could be wrong in our convictions at any time. My premise, then, at the beginning of my Lenten experiment was, “You can’t really see the truth about anything until you acknowledge that you might not have looked at it properly yet.”
Since I want to see everyone practice this, I started by trying to practice it myself. I wrote several friends-only follow-ups on Facebook throughout Lent, and promised to write up my notes on the whole experience at the end… which is what I’m doing now.
So, how did it go and what did I learn?
The goal I set for myself in that original post (linked earlier in this article) was to spend Lent really listening to anyone who expresses a different opinion, and really examining the facts, and asking myself whether that person has a point. Refusing the urge to insist that I know better.
In case you were wondering, yes: it’s extremely hard to do this. Essentially you need to build a mindfulness practice to pull it off, and that’s not easy to master in a few weeks, just like most people don’t become Zen masters in a few weeks.
So while I probably had an advantage in the fact that my translation practice incorporates mindful self-doubt, it was still far too easy to have knee-jerk responses in some other areas of my life. So for most of my experiment, my initial reaction to situations came just the way it always had, and the mindful self-doubt came after the fact. Take this example of a stressed-out me remembering something a coworker in another department had said to me:
I’m slogging through this murderously difficult project trying to do a kickass job, while making myself miserable and unmotivated by thinking, “And Person X doesn’t even think my contributions are significant! He thinks anybody could do my job and I just have an inflated sense of self-importance. After all this work, it’s just going to depress me more the next time he makes it clear that he thinks I’m incapable of good writing.” So then I have to stop and interrogate this thought: “Hold on, you’re acting like you can read minds, but you know you can’t. What if you’re wrong? What if that’s not really what he thinks at all? What if he’s just terrible at communicating, so you assume all these terrible things about him that depress you, when actually he thinks something completely different that you’re misinterpreting? He could be a nice guy who is just tragically misunderstood due to your lack of time to sit down and truly understand him. Also, you’re magnifying the importance of these passing statements way out of whatever proportion they can realistically hold in his mind.”
If you’re now thinking that this whole thing turned into self-administered cognitive behavioral therapy for a while, I agree with you. It just sort of happened that way; maybe because I was familiar with the concepts in CBT and therefore found it an easy tool to use for healthy self-doubt, maybe because it’s an inherently good tool for the purpose. I don’t know.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy
What is “healthy” self-doubt? Too much self-doubt, or uncontrolled self-doubt, paralyzes you and prevents you from getting anything done, either as a translator or as a person trying to get through daily life.
Take the example I described above, where I practiced self-doubting my conviction that a certain coworker didn’t respect me. The conviction came from several conversations we’d previously had, but it’s very possible (as I CBT-ed myself into realizing) that this coworker does respect me, and that I was wrong about what motivated him to say the things that led me to this conviction. This was the take most of my friends and colleagues had on it when I shared my thoughts with them.
But one friend responded to the same post by gently reminding me that while it’s excellent not to prejudge someone’s intentions, if I determine that someone was being a jerk to me, I’m not necessarily obligated to keep on play devil’s advocate for them. She was getting at something important: our self-doubt needs to be appropriate in scope and application.
Once you give open-minded consideration to the idea that you are wrong about something, you don’t have to go on doubting yourself about it forever. After you review the evidence for both sides, you may find that on balance, it looks like you were right after all. That’s fine. Other times you’ll find that on balance, the other side is right (or at least has a good point).
Similarly, you shouldn’t doubt yourself to the point that you decide you’re wrong before you even review the evidence. “I may be wrong and that guy may be right” is healthy; “I’m always wrong, so that guy must be right” is not.
Things Finally Start Working
I’m sure that which self-righteousness is hardest to let go of varies from person to person. Probably some people will have the most trouble in a religious arena, others in a government policy arena, and still others in a “my musical tastes are better than yours” arena.
For me, the incident I described about my conversation with a coworker was representative. As it turns out, I’m okay at asking other people for their perspectives on political or spiritual issues, listening to the answers, and asking myself if I should modify my own existing positions based on those answers. Yeah, sometimes I just want to rant or call other people idiots so I can remain in the safety of my own existing opinions, because I’m human and the internet makes that easy. But I recognize those impulses and I can control them if I want to. Listening to the case for this or that position on an issue comes almost as easily to me as seeking additional data or help on a translation issue. That wasn’t the hardest part for me. The hardest part for me was to assume I might be wrong about other people’s intentions.
Eventually, my foray into self-CBT transitioned to a practice where it was a bit easier to give people the benefit of the doubt. No, I certainly didn’t get to a Buddha-like state where I could pull myself back from making any judgments in the moment. But I did progress to what I think is the intermediary step: just trying to go into each new conversation with (or about) a person with the assumption that I might have been wrong last time. In other words, I forced myself to accept new evidence about the person instead of starting every interaction assuming that I already understood their attitude and their thoughts and their agendas.
And you know what? Sometimes I really was wrong.
Sometimes, people are just being jerks. But other times, new evidence surfaces which reveals that something else was going on last time. For instance, I might have thought Bob was keeping information from me, but the truth was that Bob genuinely thought I already knew the information. Or I might have assumed that Bob was responsible for a crappy thing that happened, but then later learned that Peter was actually the one responsible. (Notice here that we can be right that a situation is crappy without necessarily being right about why.)
Perhaps you might think, “I reported a month ago that whenever Julie does x, it causes y harmful effect, but Julie keeps doing it! She’s doing it just to piss me off now!” But in reality, the message may have never made it all the way to Julie, so despite your report, she is unaware of the harmful effect, and is doing x in the perfectly innocent conviction that x is okay.
It feels good to realize how many people are not jerks.
Although some are, in fact, total jerks.
Other Behavioral Observations
Trying not to be self-righteous naturally made me interested in observing other people’s self-righteous or unself-righteous behavior and examining the effects.
Of course, there is no better place to observe self-righteous behavior (or to despair of humanity in general) than in the “comments” section of literally anything anywhere on the internet. I was able to see pretty quickly that a conviction of one’s own rightness produces behavior indistinguishable from that of trolls. Although your classic internet trolls post things which they don’t believe just to be inflammatory, people who believe themselves too much end up saying exactly the same sort of things a troll would say, in exactly the same ways, and are therefore taken no more seriously than a troll would be. I speculate that this is because to someone whose only purpose is to be “right” and to call out and mock other people for being “wrong,” troll-like behavior appears perfectly reasonable.
I saw a truly classic example in the comments to a Facebook share of this article on a Kentucky coal museum going solar. (I could swear it was the one in the group March for Science, but if so, a moderator has removed the comments I read on April 9th; I should have been smart and taken a screenshot just in case.) A faction of the commenters decided to respond to the article with a string of no-source proclamations about coal vs. solar that boiled down to “BOW DOWN BEFORE MY ABSOLUTE RIGHTNESS YE IGNORANT FOOLS.” The random inflammatory comments by people in a group dedicated to appreciating science reached a such a level of epic that not only did I think to myself “These people are basically trolls!”, but at one point when one person accused another of being a troll, that person responded with a diatribe that included the words, “Do NOT call me a troll when I am right.” It turns out that no matter how smart or science-appreciating you are, needing to be right will end up making you ridiculous.
Meanwhile, I noticed that I had a bias: when people spoke or behaved in an unself-righteous way, I subjectively perceived them to have more expertise in the topic they were discussing. I’m sure there are multiple factors at work here that I can’t fully suss out, and I’d like to read studies related to this.
I also noted with interest when people would discuss the reasons for their beliefs, their own experiences of being wrong, or their theories on why rational people might end up with irrational personal convictions. Two examples, selected at random:
- ZDoggMD, in a very interesting episode on empathy vs. compassion, touches on the possibility that empathy might lead to unscientific beliefs more easily than compassion, because empathy is narrower in focus and therefore can prompt us to make conclusions based on a small sample size or even on one anecdote, if that anecdote sparks our empathy. In my opinion, he’s been hit or miss in the live shows he’s doing lately, but when he hits it, he makes some great contributions to the social discourse.
- Chris Ladd, in his opinion piece Unspeakable Realities Block Universal Health Coverage In America, makes a political observation that is crucial for all of us to think about regardless of whether we share his opinions: “When it seems like people are voting against their interests, I have probably failed to understand their interests.”
“It’s possible to become much less wrong about everything.”
There are so many ways to be wrong! As humans, we can be wrong about language, politics, religious doctrine, history, others’ motivations, ourselves (e.g. my knee-jerk thought “I suck at adulting” whenever I make a mistake—another candidate for CBT), and just about everything else, too.
But this experiment supports my hypothesis that all these areas of life are a lot like translation: it’s possible to become much less wrong about everything, and the way to do it is to cultivate a mindful awareness that we might be wrong about any given thing at any time. You learn a lot about yourself and how you think during this process, too.
One last thing worth noticing: being right about something today doesn’t mean being right about it forever. Going back to the Person X case, I’ve had various positive interactions with him since I first wrote that entry. Having an open mind as I went into each conversation, I realized that in the newer interactions there was no language or behavior that would lead me to believe he didn’t respect me. Does that mean I was wrong last time? I don’t know, because because relationships evolve and change. The great thing is that whether or not I was wrong about our interactions in the past, it really doesn’t matter. Maybe I was right last time… but even if so, this time is different.
Because situations can change and new facts can come to light, our rightness might turn to wrongness if we don’t keep our eyes open.
Only by accepting every day that we are fallible and need to be open to new evidence can we see when we are right and when we are wrong. The more I read, and the more I interact with people, the more important this experiment seems.