Benjamin Franklin said, “Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”
The relationships we have with our fellow humans often present us with a choice between being right, and being happy. Every couple who has been married for more than a month knows this. But humans are and always have been naturally competitive, and we are often prideful as well. You know I’m right about that.
The insistence on being right affects not only individuals, but large groups of people. In politics, it has been institutionalized to a point of paralysis. There were many times in our history when we became so adamant in our opinions that we eventually went to war to prove who was right.
In between breakups, divorces and wars we can, individually or collectively, regain some of the humility necessary to acquire new information or suffer someone else’s opinion. We usually enjoy periods of general peace and prosperity under those conditions.
In the Age of Information, however, we have become quite confident again in our opinions, having googled every source that agrees with us, and opinion is joined at the hip to identity. This is not a formula for happiness at a time when a fragmented national identity is struggling to reform. “There’s battle lines being drawn. Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong,” and apparently being right is a zero-sum game. The broken news reports every day that we aren’t as happy as we used to be.
The trouble is, this competition of ideas is not fun. It isn’t a game anymore. It’s not even a sport. We struggle to have even a civil debate, much less a cordial one. We are conditioned now to frame things, instead, in terms of conflict, to “fight” for our causes and “slam” our opponents. Or so it is reported, repeatedly, endlessly, and in detail.
It’s primarily verbal, of course, this fight to see our opinions prevail, this pixelated virtual reality of hostile adversaries fighting for what’s right. Too much media and not enough social, coming to you live and late breaking. But it’s all just theater, isn’t it? Well, it is until the pent-up unhappiness starts to affect our decision-making. Am I right?
There’s not much we can do about the theater. We can choose not to click on the provocative link, to ignore any headline that contains the words “fight” or “slam.” This goes directly to the prime motivation behind provocative headlines, as clicks are the life blood of corporate media. But we’re addicted to drama. Media serves it up because we consume it, and addictions are not easy to overcome.
We can keep our opinions to ourselves. But that, too, is difficult when identity is ascendant and everyone we know is posting and tweeting like a flock of mockingbirds.
So if we can’t stop ourselves from consuming the drama, and if we just have to keep putting our opinions forward, what can we do to keep the peace? We’ll close with more timeless wisdom from Benjamin Franklin, who said, “I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so, or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition.”
Ask anyone who has been happily married whether what Franklin said is true.