The difference between right and being popular

published Apr 18, 2007, last modified Jun 26, 2013

How do you choose your beliefs and values?

Most people go through their lives founding their beliefs on popular opinion instead of fact. From abortion to Zigarretten, people strongly feel their opinions are completely justified, and what they see on the 11 o'clock news reinforces this aberrant notion. Even when presented with facts that blatantly contradict their world view, people will stubbornly believe in their convenient crocks of shit.

I have a theory that explains this absurdities: They need to win.

There's a difference between wanting to win, and wanting to be right. Wanting to win means being on the popular team, which very much depends on believing what the majority believes. Wanting to be right requires unearthing truth, regardless of whoever else's opinion. If it helps to understand the difference, try evoking "Galileo Galilei" instead of "George W. Bush".

I'm not claiming exclusivity on the theory -- evidently, I'm neither the first not the only one who uses it. For example, Richard Stallman seems to share it:

Many people want to be on the winning side. I didn't give a damn about that. I wanted to be on the side that was right, and even if I didn't win, at least I was going to give it a good try.

Being right is harder than being popular

If you thought being right was easy, you were wrong. It's actually incredibly hard, even when trying to mind only one's own business. And if you do advocacy, it's even harder.

People coast through their lives all the time, using flat-out wrong ideas and beliefs as guides. Contrary to common sense, this works out surprisingly well, because rarely are these beliefs sufficiently dangerous (as in "Drinking two gallons of gas will make me immortal"). What matters to them is that these beliefs are coherent within their reference frame (friends, family, et cetera).

People tend to react in unpredictable ways when their fundamental beliefs are shaken.

Regrettably, I should know -- I tend to trigger these kinds of reactions when asked for my opinion on controversial subjects:

  • "what's the proper reaction for a guy to have in situation X with girl Y?",
  • "gun owners are crooks... when are cops going to just start terminating them?"
  • "there's this movie of Jebus making out with other men... let's censor the crap out of the movie!"

"Are you crazy, or just messing with me?"

Then I have to face The Big Question:

  1. Do I say just mind your own fucking business, I don't want to talk about the issue? Because that's, like, rude, and not conducive to getting invited again.
  2. Do I lie and agree with what the orthodox majority believes? That's being intellectually dishonest with myself.
  3. Do I say the truth and risk weird looks?

Guess who gets the weird looks.

You're crazy, if people had guns there'd be mass murders every day. You're crazy, sane people use Windows, not Linux. You're crazy, jealousy is a normal and healthy human feeling. You're crazy, get a regular 9 to 5 job instead of dreaming about entrepreneurship. You're crazy, if there was no God, people would have no morals. You're crazy, if drugs were legal everyone would be shooting up the hard ones and dropping like flies. You're crazy, patents are the stewards of modern progress. You're crazy, we need censorship because some opinions just shouldn't be said out loud.

That signals the start of "having to explain myself" stage, which can turn into an hour-long conversation monopoly unto itself. And if I'm publicly advocating for my point of view, then everything I say needs to be carefully double-checked -- after all, I'm selling the idea, not picking a fight or "trying to win".

And the alternative, not giving an explanation, is even worse, because it's de facto admission that my point of view is indefensibly crazy.

I care about being right. You should too.

The intolerant message is clear: if you do not share the majority opinion on hot-button issues, you're a crazy, untrustworthy person, with whom people better had not associate. The majority is wrong? Who the fuck cares, get with the program already!

I care. I wish more people cared too.

But I won't keep my hopes up, because being right is hard work. Most people would rather enable cruise control than be in control, and that applies both to their cars and to their lives.

In any case, I'm not budging one inch. You can prove me wrong with facts, and I'll change my mind in a cinch. But don't come to me appealing to the majority. Because as much as I want to win, I'd rather be right.

In the meantime, dare to think.  Dare to be right.  But most importantly, dare to question.