Matt Heath: Why being wrong is good – and being offended is cowardly

OPINION:

Last week the University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor wasn’t happy with a letter in the Listener written by several academics.She saidit caused “considerable hurt and dismay”.

I’m not qualified to discuss the issues raised in the actual letter. I’m not qualified to discuss most things. That’s why I usually write about my dog, my kids or my fave Disney shows.

I’m only weighing in on this issue because it struck me as an odd thing for the principal academic of a major university to say. Claiming people are “hurt” as a rebuttal to another academic’s argument is surely at odds with what academics do — debate ideas logically in the hope of finding the truth. Why is it relevant that some people felt “hurt and dismay”? It is possible to be hurt and still wrong.

In arguments with loved ones, you might take hurt into account. You might hug them if they don’t like what you say, but being hurt doesn’t make your kids right. In academia, you don’t need hugging. Discussing topics robustly is the whole point. The claim that some people are experiencing “hurt and dismay” shouldn’t shut the conversation down. Debate the points raised, not the emotions.

I hold a degree from the University of Otago in Philosophy, Anthropology and getting steamed at the Gardies. I got a colossal student loan and a lifelong love of the ancient Stoics. I’d like to bring the 2000 years dead, Turkish philosopher Epictetus in on this.

“When you are offended, turn to yourself and study your own failings.”— Epictetus.

Instead of weaponising people’s hurt, we should encourage hurt people to concentrate on why they are hurt. Taking offence is a choice. Choosing not to be offended is a win-win. If your opposition’s claims aren’t valid, they will be easy and fun to refute. If the claims are correct, even better, you have been gifted truth. In which case, the honourable emotion is gratitude. Either way, you don’t need to feel “hurt and dismay”.

Anger, hurt and dismay are gut reactions. You have to act fast before negative emotions take control of your words and actions. An excellent place to start is empathy.

Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius put it this way:

“When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case, they’re misguided and deserve your compassion.”

Ask honest questions of yourself. Why am I feeling hurt? Is it because the person is being unfair or abusive?If so, you can easily construct a strong argument against their assertions. In this case, sympathy is a sensible emotion. What is going on in their lives that makes them behave that way? Why can’t they build a stronger argument? Why are they so angry?

If their argument is logical, you might be feeling hurt because your beliefs are being challenged. Have they spotted a crack in your argument?In this situation, step up to the challenge. Enjoy it. It’s an opportunity to sharpen your thinking on the issue.

If your beliefs are logically sound, you’ll deliver a robust reply. The challenge has strengthened your argument. How good?

If your best case doesn’t stack up, that’s good too. You have learned something. Thank your opposition for taking the time to set you straight.

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius talks about the person he admired most in the world, his adoptive stepfather, and preceding Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius.

“If someone showed him he was wrong, rather than being offended, he was pleased.”

Antoninus was looking for the right answer. If he had it wrong, he wanted to know the truth.

Epictetus put it this way: “If you seek Truth, you will not seek to gain a victory by every possible means; and when you have found Truth, you need not fear being defeated.”

If you ask me (no one did), academics who hide from uncomfortable discussions by claiming they or others are “hurt” are taking the easy way out. Argue the points, not the emotions. If you disagree with me, come at me. I won’t get hurt. I’d love to be proven wrong; it would be the gift of knowledge.

Next week in this column: Is my dog looking at me funny?

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