[The following is a very rough draft from my upcoming book, The End of Fear Itself]
Quite possibly the deadliest fear of all is the Fear of Being Wrong.
I say deadly, not because it always leads to death, but that the potential for massive destruction and death is always there.
This is the Fear that has caused many a friend to part ways, destroyed marriages, led neighbors to fist-to-cuffs and murder, and driven entire nations to war.
It creates conflict over ideologies, religions, and national identities. It brings into focus the false sense of otherness, and the Fear of the Other, especially other people, and creates a harsh sense of Us versus Them. It is one of the roots of nationalism, bigotry, racism, and all forms of intolerance.
When it takes over the mind, it leads to entrenchment behind metaphorical walls, and throws up boundaries, both psychological, physical, and imagined. It is the driving force behind the imaginary, political boundaries of the world. We have divided up the planet with these imaginations, and given them symbols: flags, statues, slogans, and anthems. All of this reinforces the Fear of the Other.
The Fear of Being Wrong leads to in-transience, pig-headedness, close-mindedness, defensiveness, anger, conflict, and war. It is the force that drove the Nazi Party to gas and incinerate 6 million Jews and another 5 million souls that didn’t fit their model of being right, i.e., Arian. It was the driving force behind Stalin’s purges, which left over 20 million Russians buried in mass graves all over Western Asia. It is the Fear that led the U.S. into Korea and Vietnam, convinced that their way was right, and that communism was wrong.
It creates threats out of thin air. If I am right, and you are wrong, then you instantly become a potential, if not real, enemy. I must protect myself and my friends, family, and nation against your threat. It is an evil Fear, if evil there ever was. And it’s based almost entirely on bullshit.
What is right? What is wrong?
If you examine the discussion on these two questions, throughout the history of philosophy, you’re not going to find a real consensus, other than possibly it’s wrong to cause harm to someone else. One might argue that there’s a consensus on that point, but who follows that philosophy? If the so-called, free-est nation on Earth, the United States, can’t follow it, then who can? Who will?
The U.S. has been in so many wars—and is still embroiled in a protracted one as I write this—and has no right whatsoever to argue that others shouldn’t also start and engage in war, or any other kind of oppression. Their record on oppressing other people is appalling; just examine what they did to the native population of within their own borders? And that’s only the beginning. And the U.S. is my home, and birthplace.
The Fear of Being Wrong has tainted all borders, all nations, every religion (even Buddhism), and every ideology.
Even science isn’t clean on this one. In fact, they might be one of the most egregious ideologies around. While most scientists will argue that science isn’t an ideology, and maybe in theory they’re right, it certainly has underlying metaphysical assumptions about how the Universe is constructed, and those are mostly un-examined assumptions.Those assumptions lead many scientists to defend a position, long after it is prudent to do so, and long after the facts and evidence suggest that they should.
Of course, scientist aren’t alone; this is a problem for the entire species. Homo sapiens sapiens love to be right, and really, really, really are afraid of being wrong. We fuckin’ hate it. And I’m here to tell you, yours truly is guilty as well, maybe more so than most people.
What Drives This Fear?
I think there are at least two major things behind the Fear of Being Wrong.
One, if we have to admit that something we believed is in fact, wrong, we take a massive hit to our self-esteem. And this is a big deal. We spend all of our lives trying to protect what little self-esteem we have, and if we have to admit being wrong about something important, especially something that we have long believed to be true, it knocks us on our ass for awhile, if not permanently.
This makes us very defensive of our ideas and ideals. We protect them with vehemence and anger. We physically cross our arms in defensiveness during an argument, we back up, we withdraw, and we throw up those metaphorical walls to protect ourselves from the truth, or the lie that someone else is attacking us with.
Why do we do this? Loss of Identity?
The second thing driving this fear, I think, is an internal mechanism we have that equates who we are with what we currently believe. Our beliefs, in other words, have come to define our very being, our sense of self. We are what we believe, about the world, about the origins of all things, about our relationships, about ourselves, about everything. We are seriously attached to our beliefs. They have become things; they have become us. We are our beliefs, and our beliefs are us.
I am what I believe.
That’s a very powerful statement. And most of us never really think about it, about how our beliefs shape our very existence, our identity, our place in the cosmos and the history of the world. Beliefs aren’t just ideas; they have become things, they have become us. They are nouns, in other words. And nouns are very powerful things; they are concrete, factual, real.
From Belief to Theory, Noun to Verb?
But what if we troubled that thought. What if we turn beliefs into verbs? Make them more transient, fluid, ever-changing? What if, instead of having these things, these nouns, called beliefs, we instead experience them as verbs, as theories for instance?
If in a conversation, you say that you know the distance from the Earth to the Sun is 93.whatevermillionmiles, and I come back with “That’s a use-able theory for most predictions,” we might continue to have a civil discussion, whereas if I say, “That’s complete bullshit,” you might punch me in the face, and then I’d have to kick your ass, your family would come after me, and soon there’s be a world war, with buttons pushing, and mushroom clouds popping up all over the planet.
Okay, that was an exaggeration, maybe, but you get the point. If I don’t hold onto my Fear of Being Wrong, or certainty of being right—the distance between the Earth and the Sun is actually zero—then I could ask you some questions about your theory, as long as you aren’t entrenched on the idea that it’s 93.whatevermillionmiles away. If you don’t feel threatened, if you don’t feel like your belief is in danger, then a conversation can happen, instead of an argument and full-on nuclear war.
The best way to combat the Fear of Being Wrong, is to assume that most of the time, the things we think are solid, factual, or right, are in fact, theories. Or maybe I should say they are in theory theories. Most of what we think is solid, even the chair you sit upon, isn’t solid at all. And the reason the Sun isn’t 93.whatevermillionmiles away, is for two reasons.
One, the Earth’s orbit is elliptical, not circular, so the distance changes constantly. It’s never a set distance; it fluctuates based on what day, hour, minute, second, millisecond, microsecond we’re talking about.
Two, the Sun isn’t solid. It isn’t a big, shiny rubber ball out in space. It doesn’t have a surface on which to place our tape measure to measure the distance between it, and our blue planet. Our planet isn’t solid either, nor uniform. Where would we hold the other end of the tape measure? On the top of Mt. Everest, or the bottom of the Marianas Trench out in the Pacific Ocean? Big difference.
And where would we hold the tape measure on the Sun? At the core? But where is the edge of the sun? Is it the tip of the longest solar flare? Good luck measuring that! Maybe it’s the furthest reaches of the Sun’s light? Now there is the real answer.
That light, is in one instant, wave, and in another instant, particle, so not only does the light, the waves of the Sun reach us here on Earth, but also its particles. Ergo, the distance from the Sun to the Earth, is actually zero. Think about it for awhile, and it might just blow your mind, and make you question everything else you think you know.
Don’t be so quick to believe things. Question the fuck out of them. Question EVERYTHING, especially your own beliefs, including the beliefs about who you are. Dont’ become a rock. Rocks aren’t solid either, if you look close enough. Stop being solid. Be more fluid, with your beliefs, and your sense of self. If you do, then you won’t be inclined to defend what you think is right, and you can say goodbye to the Fear of Being Wrong.