On not correcting mistakes

I don’t think I believe in bibliomancy but when I randomly opened my Essential Dogen today, I opened to a teaching that spoke directly to a problem I have been mulling over for a while now, viz., how one should, in this new world of fake news, best respond to misinformation and its amplification via social media. I would like to know what the BCC community thinks:

Even when you are clearly correct and others are mistaken, it is harmful to argue and defeat them. On the other hand, if you admit fault when you are right, you are a coward. It is best to step back, neither trying to correct others nor conceding to mistaken views. If you don’t act competitively, and let go of the conflict, others will also let go of it without harboring ill will.

My whole soul rebels against this. If you are clearly wrong, and if the wrongness matters, I have this overwhelming urge to correct you. The thing is it generally seems to be a futile exercise and has this unwelcome outcome of tieing knots in my own wellbeing. Maybe Dogen is right . . . ? (#zen)


  1. It’s definitely a kind of attachment, from which learning to release yourself may lead to nirvana.

  2. Yes, Dan, it’s definitely an attachment. What of the other teaching (one that seems less of a temptation to me!): don’t admit fault when you are right? Is this a kind of false humility?

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Dogen is right, step away, especially on social media. I attached a link to support my case, I was accused of being “mean,” unfriended, and a change in VT assignments was requested. I sent a written apology, no response. Step away.

  4. The inevitable truth is that all of us have a flawed, myopic, incomplete view of the world. Humility and compassion require us to accept the inevitability of being wrong.

    But I don’t think that Buddha requires us to be complacent in the face of evil, either…

  5. All I know, Steve, is that you were prophetic when you said that Facebook was evil and would destroy the world.

  6. Alf O'Mega says:

    My strategy, when I’m being my best self, is to actively look for face-saving off-ramps for my interlocutor(s) and steer the exchange in that direction. I’m better at this when it’s real people I like and want to continue to interlock with after the argument.

    But obviously it’s more fun to find an absurd alley to back them into and then snarl and pace at the entrance. Almost always online.

  7. There is a difference between correcting errors and trying to defeat those who make errors. To let error pass unremarked can be deeply harmful, and so can the obsession with being right.

    It is often very hard to address the error without disrespecting the person, but we need to keep trying. The rules of engagement on the internet are difficult and hazardous.

  8. “But I don’t think that Buddha requires us to be complacent in the face of evil, either…”

    This I think is important. I really do try to avoid conflict on social media, but sometimes I think I have a moral responsibility to speak out. E.g., recently an acquaintance posted an article critical of the NatGeo article about the transgender child. I was able to let that go until comments started including assertions that prepubescent transgender children are prescribed cross-hormone therapy and that this makes them sterile before they even know what sex and sexuality (and gender identity) really are. At that point I felt like I had a moral obligation to correct some very bad information and responded with some basic information about the use of puberty blockers and the differences between puberty blockers and hormone therapies, with a link to more information. And then I stepped away again.

    My hope was that I would provide correct information that could help a trans person find correct information, perhaps provide some correct information to a parent of a trans person, and potentially identify myself as an ally for someone who doesn’t know where else to turn.

    I’m sure I didn’t change any minds, but it felt to me like I needed to correct a misconception that could have profound impacts on others if I didn’t speak up.

    But what if I am wrong? What if it is really just my ego making me jump in. This has really got me thinking…

  9. In a Mormon history context, Brigham Young repeatedly voiced a policy (by no means consistently followed) of not responding in the press to attacks based on falsehood — he referred to that as “leaving [so-and-so’s attack] severely alone.” Whatever the merits of the policy, one longstanding consequence is that leaving the field to the opposition means that their version of events is the only one widely available — and many people in this generation, even those predisposed to support Mormon action — believe the falsehoods.

    Is correcting error or condemning evil worth the inevitable associated losses? Sometimes, yes.

  10. This would mean a lot more to me if I had ever been wrong on the interwebz. But I have not been.

  11. Relationships matter more to me than being right. I’m not sure this is the right approach, and I certainly can’t manage it all the time.

    If I see real harm being done to A because of B’s behavior, I’ll step in to protect A as best I can. (When I’m not being a coward–which happens more often than I’d like.) I don’t always engage B. Often, protecting A is enough.

    These questions made me think.

  12. I think this was alluded to above, but the important thing is to determine your motivation for speaking out. Is it out of ego, or the need to be right? Will I get some satisfaction out of “being right?” When I find the answer is yes, it’s time to step back.

  13. It’s a muddled teaching – something is lost in translation. Or maybe our culture treats “stepping back” as an admission of being wrong, which is “cowardly”? I think that’s it.

  14. “if the wrongness matters” is one of the most problematic elements here, RJH. I am certainly not alone when I confess that my passion for things I care about blinds me horribly in moments of debate or disagreement, and I become utterly incapable of measuring whether or not the rightness or wrongness that I’m pursuing even matters. In short, I lose perspective so easily, and my views of wrongnesses that seemed mission-critical in the moment often cause me embarrassment late at night when I’m alone and calmed down.

    I’ve been married for 15 years, and despite more crusades against wrongnesses than I could count, my pursuits have rarely been worthwhile in retrospect. Does this mean none of them actually mattered? I don’t think so–I think it means that relationships are important.

    (I don’t feel fundamentally different if the relationship is (mostly) removed by thinking about it in terms of quasi- (or complete) strangers on the Internet. I’m just as bad at losing perspective with strangers as I am with my family and close friends)

  15. rebeccadalmas says:

    I reject it. The more tricky path is to try to speak truth appropriately when appropriate. Accept that you’ll learn by doing and inevitably make mistakes. Accept that it’s not about being right, but learning and when possible, learning what’s right. Apologise, forgive yourself, and others. Don’t expect a perfect correspondence from the known world and this new one. Don’t take for granted that today will work like yesterday…

    Anyways, that’s kinda how I see it and try to respond and act.

  16. I think that the Dogen is probably right, but that it’s more right in-person than online. In-person, if you do it right, refusing to engage can exert a kind of nonviolent force. The Dharasana satyagraha is an example of this, and I recently read a story of the Reformer Musculus visiting some Anabaptists in prison and refusing to argue theology with them until they understood that he loved them. Online, though, it just looks like FB’s algorithm skipped over the offensive post or whatever, and people probably won’t even notice that you ignored it. You might be psychologically healthier for doing so, but you’re probably contributing to the problem both when you ignore it and when you try to fight back. It’s hard.

  17. My brother and I are having an ongoing conversation about how to disagree productively and whether such a thing is even possible. He contends that we believe what we want to believe, and so challenging another’s beliefs directly is unproductive at best and alienating at worst. I want to have a less pessimistic view, but I worry that he is correct.

  18. I think that almost no one is ever persuaded by direct argumentation. Persuasion happens only in special circumstances—like explicitly educational settings and close friendships. If you want to create those special circumstances, then Dogen is right on. You can’t persuade anyone who doesn’t trust you, and arguing tends to alienate, not build trust. If you want someone to trust you, then follow Dogen and avoid arguing at all costs.

    Political or religious discussion/argument/shouting on the internet does not generally persuade people to change their views, but I can think of two worthwhile things that it does accomplish: 1) It creates communities of likeminded people who can work together to take action. 2) It establishes the normal boundaries of certain arguments. Over time, arguments drift, develop, and evolve. Most people do not spend a lot of time or energy working out their political or religious views; they usually go along with the received views of the day, and they’re not roused when the center drifts in one direction or another. Discussion on the internet is one important way that the normal center of political and religious opinion gets defined.

  19. “Even when you are clearly correct and others are mistaken, it is harmful to argue and defeat them.” Unless staying silent implies that you agree — then it’s like lying by omission — at a certain point it becomes blatant dishonesty.

  20. rebeccadalmas says:

    Yet on the internet rarely is a conversation exclusively one-on-one. There are always observers who may be persuaded without commenting. We tell and show by how and what we communicate.

  21. Aussie Mormon says:

    Rebecca mentions (maybe unintentionally) something that I think about when deciding whether to continue a potentially heated debate.
    Let’s say someone makes a comment online indicating that a particular Mormon ordinance is satanic (let’s say baptism for the dead for instance). Someone that hasn’t heard of Mormonism previously could easily be swayed away by that comment.
    Now granted that particular one is not hard to counteract (the wording of proxy baptisms is almost the same as normal baptisms save for the lines indicating that it’s on behalf of someone who is dead). However there are other things that are harder to counteract without getting into the regular arguments.
    At what point (if any) do you throw in the towel?

  22. rebeccadalmas says:

    Aussie, to your question, maybe once you’ve stated a clear case, leave in peace unless someone seems open to honestly working through the argument reasonably.

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