Civility Tip of the Week: Reserve the Right to be Wrong.

As a leader, conflict management is a routine part of my responsibility. Tensions usually arise when human beings work and live together, but in today’s polarized and outrage addicted environment, those involved in the conflict are all the more passionate for a resolution.

For many today, the stakes of error could not be higher since one’s very identity hangs in the balance.[1] To be incorrect about whether or not one thought a meeting began at 5:00 or 5:30 is one thing, but to be perceived as wrong on an issue that could determine one’s acceptance in a church group, a circle of friends, or a significant business relationship is altogether different. As a result, most approaches to issues of tension within the various tribes that make up the American religious, political, and social landscape suggest resolution comes not through understanding, not through patient negotiation, and certainly not through principled compromise, but only through victory: declaring a winner, or by endorsing one perspective as “right” or “patriotic” or “Biblical”. Of course, this means there is a loser, usually labeled as “loser” or “un-American” or “heretic.”  This creates an almost deafening and intolerable dissonance within the mind and heart of an individual and effectively disengages any further conversation. Is this necessary? Why do so many appear so quick to respond by just turning up the volume of an either/or soundtrack?

It is suggested here the source of such dissonance is a fear of error that exists and is perpetuated within like-minded social, political, and religious circles or “tribes.” Journalist Kathryn Schultz notes that one’s perspective on error is significantly affected by the context in which they live. Do they live in a bubble? Do they live in an environment that heightens or minimizes the fear of error?[2]

Both of these questions provide a useful analytical framework for fear of error evident in daily life.  First, there exists a culture of exclusivity in which views other than those already accepted within the tribe are ignored, caricatured beyond recognition[3], or altogether banned from examination. Second, there exists a culture of conformity wherein individuals that dare to ask questions or explore options outside of the “tribe” are vilified or demonized and effectively marginalized.[4]

While the fear that drives this culture comes from a desire to protect the integrity of one’s tribe,  it appears the “either/or” paradigm within which many Americans operate has significantly limited our capacity to effectively engage the emerging generations of young leaders.[5] It has become easier to declare whichever group within which we find acceptance to be correct, demonize anyone who would disagree, and disconnect from the discussion as it occurs on the broader culture.

Also, the concept of being wrong is, on a primal level one of the greatest of all human fears.[6] To avoid the appearance of being wrong, we will blame individuals, systems, and circumstances, deny that an error has taken place, justify our wayward actions, rationalize our wayward thoughts, and perform superhuman feats of logical gymnastics to be “right.”

So what to do?

Understand that being wrong is often the best way to learn what’s right.

We can temper our fear of error by understanding error to be what makes us truly human, as St. Augustine writes, “fallor ergo sum: I err, therefore, I am.”[7]

Once, at a T-ball game with my son, I observed signs with bold red letters that warned, “Do not yell at the umpires. Nobody’s perfect, not even YOU!”

It’s natural to read the previous statement and think of someone else rather than yourself, but in all honesty, errors are common to humanity. So what if you and I looked in the mirror instead of looking through the window? It is difficult to embrace the vibrancy of faith, to be relationally present, and to express civility within the tensions of life until we are set free from the fear of error. Again, Kathryn Schultz writes

“Far from being a moral flaw, [error] is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage. And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change … it is ultimately wrongness, not rightness that can teach us who we are.” [8]

As much as I admire Kathryn Schultz, I’ve found this lesson best summarized by Jedi Master Yoda. In Star Wars, The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker has become a secluded, brooding, grump. He has cut himself off from the Force and isolated himself from family and friends, all because of fear and error.

“The greatest teacher, failure is.”

For all of Luke’s power and success, he’s never learned how to harness the power of failure. He messed up, so he gave up, and Yoda shows up.

As he laments his failures and hopelessness, Yoda responds, “Heeded my words not, did you? Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also.

Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.”

Want to master wisdom, character, and civility? Reserve the right to be wrong.


[1] Kathryn Schulz, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (New York: Ecco, 2010), 156

[2] Ibid,  196

[3] Theologian Scot McKnight’s caution to critics of the Emerging Church movement is relevant here. He warned, “We must identify our conversation partners in a way they would recognize.”- Scot McKnight, “What Is the Emerging Church?” (reading, Fall Contemporary Issues Conference, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, December 2, 2011)

[4] Tammi R. Ledbetter, “Rainer: ‘Reader Discernment Tags’ Scuttled; Efforts to Increase Bible Literacy Prioritized,” Southern Baptist Texan / news journal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, February 21, 2008, accessed December 10, 2011,

[5] Jay Dennis and Jim Henry, Dangerous Intersections: Eleven Church Crossroads Facing the Church in America (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2004), 4.

[6] Schulz,  5

[7] Aurelius Augustinus, City of God, trans. Gill Evans and Henry Bettenson (London: Penguin, 2003), 460.

[8] Schulz,  5-6.

2 thoughts on “Civility Tip of the Week: Reserve the Right to be Wrong.

  1. Thanks Kevin. Your blog reminds me of a class I conducted years ago in conflict management, where one option may be to step back and take a deep breath. This allows you to cool off and maybe see things in a different perspective. This also gives you an opportunity to possibly see options. Does this mean you have given up? Not at all. It just means that when you choose to renegage, you’re verbal and non-verbal signals will tend to help you to have a non-confrontational approach. A. Dennis Spray

    We have been coming to the church for seven weeks now and enjoy your messages.

    Oh, if you noticed, I used to use Startrek Next Generation for my management courses.

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