Wednesday, May 29, 2013

On Bravery (and Being Right)

There is an old Indonesian proverb that reminds people to "be brave because (you are) right, (and) be afraid because (you are) wrong."

I believe that this notion is not to be taken for granted. Without a thorough understanding, declaring something as "right" or "wrong" is simply a matter of providing an acceptable justification or getting the majority share.

Let’s say that we are, or have to be, brave because we are right.

However, what makes us "right"?

Does one become "right" simply because they are "not wrong"?

If one must, or at least can, be "brave" because they are "right", what should they be "brave" enough to do, and to what extent?

Also, what about one who believes that they are "right", then later encountered another who fervently thinks that what is "right" is something else on the contrary?

Before I go on, I would like to highlight that this piece is not about to discuss what is right and/or wrong, but how bravery has got to do with them. Okay, proceed.

On the other part of the sentence, being "afraid" is associated with what is "wrong". This implies that one has to be "afraid" to do "wrong", or be "afraid" to get caught for doing something "wrong". Yet, as human beings, we make mistakes every now and then and therefore prone to wrongdoings. Why on earth should we be afraid of something so naturally humane?

Apparently, there is a scientific explanation behind this.

"The body makes a chemical choice about how best to protect itself – in this case from the shame and loss of power associated with being wrong," said Judith E. Glaser in her article titled Your Brain Is Hooked on being Right. She furthermore explained that "When you argue and win, your brain floods with different hormones: adrenaline and dopamine, which makes you feel good, dominant, even invincible."

According to Glaser, the said chemical choice leads to the inability to regulate the body’s emotion or handle the gaps between expectations and reality. Humans will then default to one of four responses: to fight, flight, freeze, or appease. "All are harmful because they prevent the honest and productive sharing of information and opinion," she noted.

After reading Glaser’s elaboration, it came as no surprise to me that bravery is associated with being right, and fear with wrongdoings, hence the proverb.

But, in my opinion, this is where it becomes rather problematic: the proverb seems to encourage one to be "brave" only when they are "right", but not when they are "wrong".

Being "brave" when one believes themselves to be "right" is fairly easy, for it feels good and all. For example, telling a smoker to stop smoking in a non-smoking area at a public place might be hardly challenging. One would believe that they are doing the "right" thing; therefore they are "brave" enough to confront the said smoker.

However, it is a different case when one was confronted for being late for an important meeting by their boss. They might feel the need to make up an excuse ("The traffic’s unusually bad this morning", "I had a flat tire on the way", etc.), because they are "afraid" that admitting their waking up late would not be beneficial to their overall performance at work. They might get away by doing so once or twice, but when somebody else found out that their justification is fabricated, well… that is another story.

I then came to a conclusion that being "brave" is crucial regardless of one is "right" or "wrong".

One who is "afraid" when or because they do "wrong" might find it inconvenient to take the responsibility for their wrongdoing. I am not saying that one has to be "brave" by being explicitly detailed in admitting that they are "wrong"; but I believe that it is important for one to acknowledge their mistake, so they can offer apologies to those affected and do the necessary damage control. By doing so, they are willing to commit to fix the situation, and in the meantime obtain the lesson learned from their mistake.

Of course, it feels more comfortable to be "right". Glaser argues that due to the good feeling caused by adrenaline when one is winning an argument, humans are addicted to being right. However, she proposed that there is another feel-good hormone human body can produce: oxytocin. "It’s activated by human connection and it opens up the networks in our executive brain, or prefrontal cortex, further increasing our ability to trust and open ourselves to sharing," Glaser stated.

As much as connecting and bonding with others trumps conflict, Glaser concluded that anyone "can break their addiction to being right by getting hooked on oxytocin-inducing behaviour instead."

I began this piece with an Indonesian proverb, so let me end it with another, which says, "One who is brave enough to act must also is brave enough to take responsibility." It implies that, as much as one is expected to "be brave because (they are) right", it comes to little use if one is not brave enough to handle the possible consequence of them being not entirely right.

I believe that nobody is right all the time. Therefore, to be "brave" enough to embrace the possibility of being or doing "wrong" opens oneself to sharing. Only then, one is willing to listen to dissenting opinions and exchange ideas, so they can obtain some new perspective to enrich their initial understanding.

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