The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I like being right. I don’t like how I handle it.

A member of the Proud Boys stands in front of a demonstrator in Portland, Ore., in September 2020. (John Locher/AP)
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Brian Broome is the author of “Punch Me Up To The Gods.”

A long time ago, in my third-grade class, our teacher wrote a long word on the blackboard. It was not a word that we had seen before. Then she turned around and asked, “Can anyone tell me what this word is?”

The room went completely quiet as we silently tried to sound the word out. I was trying to parse the word when, all of a sudden, it just came to me. I shouted it out: “Investigation!”

I don’t remember why this word was on the board. I don’t remember how I knew the word. I do remember that the teacher looked surprised as she told me I was right. I looked around the room to receive the accolades from my fellow classmates, but no one was smiling. Instead, I got scowls.

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This is the first time I can remember being right. It felt good. And it remains so today.

Some of the power in being right rests in its ability to make us feel superior and, more insidiously, from the way it makes our worlds appear solid and unassailable. The only feeling that might be more intoxicating than being right is the feeling of superiority that comes from being right while someone else is wrong.

I have wasted many hours fighting with strangers online about politics or gender or culture. In most cases, of course, I thought I was right. Often the arguments got ugly and soon the most important thing became proving that I was right and my opponent was wrong. The specifics fall away and the stakes become clear: If I am wrong, my world becomes threatening and unsafe. I imagine the same is true for them.

But feeling safe isn’t the same as being safe. Nor does it ever justify why we feel threatened in the first place. Americans of all types now appear to live in constant fear that someone is going to take something from them. Our jobs, our property, our security — whatever that means these days. But mostly, we are afraid that someone will invalidate the core beliefs that we rely on to help us make sense of the world.

It sometimes feels like our information-stuffed age has done little to inform or edify but a great deal to buttress those who think they have all the facts on their side. People who are unwilling to listen to the analyses, life experiences and needs of anyone else. All for the sake of the black-and-white thinking that keeps us feeling protected at a time when nothing feels certain.

This is not a good place for a country to be. That sense of false security that comes from being sure we are always right keeps us divided enough for outside forces to manipulate and perhaps conquer. Because a fight between grasshoppers is a joy to the crow.

None of us is innocent in this situation. I admit to getting high off being right and wishing ill upon those who are so nakedly wrong that it warrants mockery. Like those who believe the “big lie.” Listening to them spout nonsense in the face of verifiable fact is maddening. I know they feel the same about me.

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I had a friend such as this. His support of Donald Trump was unwavering and ended our friendship in a shouting match. Now, he rails online against vaccines and masks, has contracted covid-19 three separate times, and is nearing financial ruin because of it. And this is where it should stop feeling good to be right. But it doesn’t. Part of me takes satisfaction in his troubles. Because he now must see how right I was.

I have read the stories of covid deniers who have died of the disease and have felt nothing other than the schadenfreude that goes along with “I told you so.” I am not proud of that fact.

There must be a more compassionate way of disagreeing with one another. There must be a way set aside the hollow satisfaction of right-thinking and to find out why other people believe what they believe.

If the United States should fail, I doubt it will be because of some foreign power. America’s destruction will take place inside its own borders because we conflate being wrong with failing or losing. Our destruction will come from those of us who are so damned right all the time. The ones who refuse to listen, who will never even bother to consider other people’s viewpoints and who will protect their worldview with their lives. We must find a better path to safety.