How Do We Know We Are Right?

This week’s (right?) question comes to us via reader Harold:

One of the problems we face in today’s society s that we live in a media bubble. From the blogs we read, to the TV channels we watch, to the conversations we have with friends, our own opinions are often reflected back at us, reinforcing our view of the world.

But what happens if that view is not accurate? What if my incorrect beliefs, my mistaken facts, have been repeated so often that I simply accept them as true?

I hold my truths to be self evident. But then again, people who believe the exact opposite from me think they are right just as passionately as I do. If they didn’t — or I didn’t — we’d change our minds.

If two people hold opposite viewpoints on things, at least one of them must be mistaken. Is there any way that I can make sure that it isn’t me? Or is it likely that we are both wrong, and the truth is actually somewhere in the middle of our beliefs? Does it matter?

It would certainly be an unfortunate turn of events if I hold the correct point of view, but due merely to lack of confidence I were to incorrectly concede. Instead, I barrel on in every circumstance, certain of my infallibility, despite copious evidence to the contrary. That would be fine of I were right about everything, but clearly I am not.

So how can we tell? How can we separate out truth from persuasive fiction? How do we know we are right? Or wrong?

Related questions: How can we encourage debate? What beliefs do you have that might be wrong? How do you know who to trust? How can we become better listeners?


When Should You Criticize Someone?

Being critical of someone else can be a tricky endeavor, even if it is well-intentioned. If you criticize, it might be interpreted as a personal attack. If they respond with a defensive posture, it might make effective communication more difficult.

When To Criticize

Sometimes, it is important to challenge someone else’s ideas or comments. If a friend or family member expresses an idea that you strongly disagree with, particularly if that idea is hurtful or dangerous, it should not remain unanswered.

By engaging with someone, you might be exposing him or her to a point of view they may not have encountered before. That can be a very valuable thing, particularly in this era of online bubbles of group-think.

But sometimes being critical does not serve any defined purpose. The person being criticized is unlikely to change, and might not even listen to the criticism. If all that can be achieved is hurt or angry feelings, then keeping silent may be a better course of action.

How To Criticize

So knowing when to criticize and when not to is important, but then so is knowing how to do it. How can you get someone to listen, to accept your opinion in a constructive way? How can you avoid a personal attack, or at least avoid such an appearance?

It can be a fine line between denouncing someone’s ideas and insulting who they are. A person’s strongly-held belief can be a cornerstone of their identity. In that case, condemning the idea may seem akin to condemning the person. That is no way to get someone to keep an open mind, and get them to consider other points of view.

So really, there are two closely-related questions: When should you criticize someone? And how should you criticize someone in order to get them to listen?

Related questions: How can we encourage debate? What words have the most power? How important is respect? What makes a good friend? How can we encourage meaningful conversation?