Book review

Interview with Kathryn Schulz


Being Wrong

 American journalist and writer Kathryn Schulz recently visited Georgia. Well-known for her thought-provoking articles in The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, Rolling Stone and The Nation, she is the author of the new book “Being Wrong.” The Georgian non-governmental organization Radarami translated Schulz’s first book and organized presentations for the author in different parts of the country. With “Being Wrong,” Schulz aims to alter public opinion about human error. Her witty language and vivid examples persuades us that “our mistakes are part and parcel of our brilliance, not the regrettable consequences of a separate and deplorable process.” Kathryn Schulz shared highlights of “wrongology” with Tabula magazine. 

You have been an international journalist reporting from the hot spots of the world. Then you took an interest in “Being Wrong” and became a writer. How did this transition go? 

It’s a big question. For me, there is not much difference between being a journalist and being a writer. Well, there is some. What I loved about working on the book is that I had so much liberty. When you are a journalist, and you know it, you have a time constraint because you are on deadline. You have a space constraint too. So, for me, the real luxury of the book was working totally on my own terms. 

Why “Error”? How did you pick the topic?

In terms of how I actually came to the subject, amazingly, it was literally an epiphany. It was the only one I’ve ever had and I can’t imagine having another one. I had been working on a series of stories that had absolutely nothing to do with each other. One was a political event in Texas; another was about this really interesting scientist from Yale – totally different. I lived in Brooklyn at the time and I was walking up to my apartment – and, literally I can tell what stair I was on – and I realized that all of these stories I had been working on were actually on the same thing in this underground way. They were all about our relationship to error, how we form beliefs, why we are so attached to them, and how we feel when they fall apart. And I realized, “Oh, that’s a book, and I’m going to write it!”

This was in 2004, so we’re talking about the Iraq War, weapons of mass destruction… It was this moment in U.S. history and global history when, if you were not thinking of being wrong, something was wrong with you. We had all just experienced this really massive example of the real consequences of getting something very, very wrong. So I felt in myself the desire to be right and explore the implications of error on all of us.

Your book starts with the crucial question of why people love to be right. There might be some logical connection here: All the major religions and philosophies see mistake as something bad, as a sin, and encourage us to correct our mistakes. Then comes Kathryn Schulz and says that mistakes are human, they’re something really normal. What is the problem with traditional attitudes towards mistake?

Well, first of all, I would challenge you a little bit on religion. Most religions and most cultures have conflicted relationship to error. You are right, there is no question we associate error with sin, with being evil. 

But, on the other hand, every major world religion talks extensively about how fallible human beings are. The heart of every religion is that we are imperfect and that’s what distinguishes us from God. Most religions have some kind of mechanisms for acknowledging mistakes, at least moral ones. That’s why you have confession in Christianity. In Judaism, you have Yom Kippur, this annual holiday when you atone for everything you’ve done wrong. So the religions really understand that we are fallible and we need to find ways to make room for that in our lives.

In terms of why we love to be right, it’s because first of all it’s fun. To make a very simplistic evolutionary argument, it is important to our livelihood and our safety to be correct. If you are being chased by a tiger, you have to make a split-second decision and it’s much better to be right in that situation, like to go up the tree instead of down the canyon. The evolutionary advantage to get things right is huge in our lives. So, you can argue that there is a certain biological incentive to get things right.

In your article “The United Mistakes of America” you argue that mistakes and being tolerant of them represent the cornerstone of democracy. How?

I think the democracy thing is true and it’s crucial. Americans, like everyone, love to be right. Right now, the country is very partisan. But it’s kind of always been very partisan. To me, the crucial point is that we have a system where we recognize the right of the people who disagree with us to exist and, in fact, to help us run our country. This enables people to share the power because they believe that other ideas, other perspectives, other people are valuable to making this country work. Therefore, I do think that democracy is fundamentally error-tolerant. 

You mentioned politics. What is politicians’ attitude to error?

I speak a lot about wrongness these days, and it’s shocking how much it depends on professional background. Scientists, engineers, they are excellent because they kind of have to be. But then you move down this spectrum and at the far end you get politicians who are terrible at it. But I think we are all complicit in that as citizens. We elect these people and we are not tolerant of politicians who change their mind, who step out and say “I was wrong.” If you look back in U.S. history, you do see certain politicians who were able to do that – most notably, Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the country. Famously, he signed the Constitution, saying, “I am signing this document although I disagree with parts of it because, in my past, I had the experience of disagreeing with something and then realizing that I was wrong.” So we had that in history and, unfortunately, mostly it’s not present anymore.

What do you think is a typical American mistake often present in most Americans’ daily lives?

It’s very hard to make generalizations, but I would say junk food. Also, I don’t like American car culture. We’re also terrible to the environment. Finally, it all comes down to the fundamental dilemma of the relationship between liberty and society. Americans are far on the side of liberty. There are a lot of great things about that. But, the trade-off is that we have absolutely no safety network. To me, having millions of uninsured people is the fundamental thing that America is doing wrong.

As for the right thing, though, I think this is that question of liberty. The great thing about America is that this is the country of subcultures. There is plenty of hatred of idiocy, but fundamentally there is so much tolerance – and, even more, excitement – about the cultural diversity. It’s really hard to find such in the rest of the world. Look at New York: I’ve been to ten of the biggest cities in the world and I can’t think of one so astonishingly international, multicultural presence, managing to live together. And New York is not a super-segregated city. 

Let’s look at international politics and the position of the U.S. What does your country do right and wrong? 

When it comes to international relations, there are no simple answers. The more globalized the world is, it becomes even more complicated, though I have some answers. I think we were absolutely wrong to go into Iraq. But then, there is Afghanistan. I don’t have a clear answer if we have to have a presence there. But, when every time the controlling regime has withdrawn from there – like the Russians did it and then we did – it’s been a disaster. 

So, how do you figure out what to do in any given situation? You could look at the history. But those lessons of history are unbelievably complicated. For the U.S., it can be “Are we looking at Vietnam or Rwanda?” As for looking at Vietnam, we shouldn’t intervene. If we’re looking at Rwanda, the lesson is “Why weren’t we there?”
So it’s very hard, especially when you are the self-appointed police of the world. If I were running the show, it would be just a moral calculation as to which is the greatest good, which helps civilians. But that’s not the calculation. There are international relations, oil money, how it will look in the U.S. press, and so on and so forth.  

As for Syria, we should absolutely intervene in there and support the resistance primarily through airpower and some behind-the-scenes negotiations. I think it’s a humanitarian tragedy that we are not there. It’s also short-sighted. Clearly, we should be supporting the Arab Spring. We should be supporting it on principle, and we should be supporting it geopolitically.
As for Iran, actually Georgia has such an interesting position. Here you are, a strong ally of the U.S. with an open visa-exchange with Iran, pretty good relations. As far as I know, you are one of the two countries that have visa-free travel with Iran. And the other one is Venezuela, which is less relevant because you are actually bordering Iran and they’re not. What I would like to see in Iran is a home-grown revolution. No one hates the Iranian government more than Iranians. The tragedy of Iran is that it was such an incredibly educated, smart, wonderful society. You would like to think that there can be the grassroots for a home revolution. That would obviously be the best thing from the geopolitical perspective. I feel like the lesson of Egypt could happen there too. 

There is a beautiful Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” And it’s actually true. Over and over you see that regimes that seem permanent fall. We saw the Soviet Union fall when ninety-nine percent of politicians thought there was no way it could happen. The same I would like to see in Iran.

You are advocating mistake in your book. However, most people recognize the existence of “completely wrong” things. Do you accept such a category?

Sure. And it’s an interesting question because it brings me against the limit of my own argument. Of course, there are some things that are completely wrong and they’re mainly the moral things, such as genocide or violations of other very important human rights.
However, what the book has taught me is that you can have beliefs like that and still engage in relations with the people who disagree with you. Our first instinct is to dismiss the people who disagree with us. There’s a feeling that even talking about it is a violation of our own belief system, which is a personalized version of that American foreign policy line that we sometimes take, that we don’t talk to certain people, we don’t talk to dictators, which I find idiotic. Go talk to them! I find it too rigid. I disagree with certain beliefs, but I’m curious about them.

You mentioned that many people make a conscious choice to stand on the wrong side of history. You just met Georgian teachers. Did you discuss with them the challenges of teaching – how to educate people to stay on the right side of history?

We talked about a lot of things, especially how to not teach fear of being wrong. Because in most cases what our school system does – and I think this is equally true in Georgia and in the U.S. – it expects students to be right and punishes them for being wrong. That sends them this very clear message that making mistakes is a kind of failure.

In terms of your question of how to teach people to be on the right side of history, I think that what you really need to teach are empathy and curiosity. If you can get people to be curious about the world instead of being afraid about it – “Oh, that’s unfamiliar”; “That’s not how I live my life” – that I think is tremendously helpful. And empathy, the ability to look at someone and realize no matter how different they are from you, no matter how much they disagree with you, it’s still worthwhile to listen. They believe their beliefs for a reason; their beliefs are valuable to them as your beliefs are to you.  

We also need a real commitment to teaching the dangers. People need to realize that when these two traits [empathy and curiosity] are absent, the results may be disastrous. I am talking about the Holocaust.

So, here you are in Georgia. What is your experience so far?

I had heard a lot about Georgia before. Never been here before, never visited the region before. The closest I’ve been to Georgia is probably Syria, which is not very close. I am a mountain person, which was one of the reasons why I was so excited to come to Georgia. So far, it’s been lovely and, more than anything else, I’m impressed by the intelligence of the people. Even the fact that they translated this book, on some level is a sign of commitment to the ideas, commitment to engagement of what’s going on in rest of the world, which is very important.

This article first appeared in Tabula  Georgian Issue # 105, published 18 June 2012.



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