Is there a right to be wrong?

| Forum Editor

One day in math class, my professor posed a not-too-easy question. He called on someone, who gave a reasonable answer. I raised my hand and gave a different one. Turns out, I was wrong.

It certainly was not the first time I had been wrong, nor will it be the last. Such inevitable moments keep us humble and let us learn; our lives as students would be less entertaining without the occasional incorrect response. But on that day in math class, did I have a right to be wrong? In a practical sense, of course. Education comes with the premise that being wrong is okay. “Wrongness” provides a standard by which to know what is right, as well as the opportunity to be correct. Without the right to make a mistake, I just might fear raising my hand to answer another question or speaking up in class to propose an unusual interpretation.

But let’s go beyond a practical example, like education, to more ethically demanding ones. For example, the Holocaust is a horrifying reality of world history, something whose existence piles of documents, testimonials and bodies easily verify. While in countries like Germany denying the Holocaust is a crime, in the United States it is protected speech. Is this fair? Do we rightly allow individuals to say it never occurred? I say yes; as upsetting as such a lie is, prohibiting it would be worse.

Is there a right to be wrong?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

As another example, take the tobacco company executives who once denied (or maybe still do deny) the harmful effects of smoking cigarettes and cigars. Did they have the right to be wrong when doing so led and continues to lead to thousands of deaths every year? Their deliberate lies again tempt me to draw the line, but I still think the right to be wrong is valid. At the end of the day, I need to focus on knowing what is correct.

If a person knows the Holocaust happened and has seen the evidence but still insists it never happened, I say let him or her do so. If a tobacco executive wants to deny that smoking cigarettes significantly increases the risk of cancer despite all of the scientific data, be my guest. My responsibilities are to decide who to trust, to educate myself so that I can know what the facts are and to expose the people who lie. Though these liars have a right to be wrong, I have a right to make them look like fools. Let them be wrong; at least then we’ll know who the idiots are.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.