Is it more important to be right or to be kind? Are they mutually exclusive? Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer, who lives and works in Portland, Oregon has some interesting thoughts about that. He writes:
Let’s say someone says something you know just isn’t true: “the earth is flat,” “it’s OK to always trust the government,” or “everyone in the world’s middle name is ‘Zachary’ whether they know it or not.”
Or maybe they insult your religion’s views about something.
Or tell you: “You’re fat, dumb, and ill mannered.”
Perhaps they imply that you shouldn’t still feel phantom hurts from a years-ago trauma.
Maybe they don’t accept your sincere apology.
For ease of use, let’s work with the example that someone says, “Bananas have more potassium than frozen spinach.”
You remark, “But that’s not true!” And they double down with, “I am certain that bananas have more potassium than frozen spinach.”
Of course, certainty doesn’t mean that the person is correct, only that they are certain.
And, due to a combination of force of habit and your lack of commitment to act otherwise, you engage. Blood boiling, you defend truth and shout, “Nonsense! Frozen spinach has more potassium than bananas do!”
And you know for a fact that bananas have less potassium than frozen spinach.
After all, you happened to have been at the laboratory, double checking the math of the fifth group of scientists that confirmed it:
One cup of frozen spinach: 580mg K
One supermarket banana: 422mg K
Blood boiling, you scream, “Wrong! You are wrong! I am the Guinness world record holder for knowledge of facts about the potassium levels in different foods. I was rated number one by J.D. Power and Associates for my integrity as a potassium level expert. I have both Volker Römheld and Ernest A. Kirkby—the two authors of the 2010 article Research on potassium in agriculture—on speed dial. It is a fact: Bananas have less potassium frozen spinach!”
Everyone in the room applauds you for setting the record straight. Invitations to honor you for your help in keeping the world objective with regard to truthfulness abound.
You win. You are right.
But, of course, you might not have convinced them. As Ben Franklin quipped: “A person convinced against their will is of the same opinion still.”
Nonetheless, at least in the public eye, you won.
However, your victory comes with three very real-world costs: (1) risking embarrassing the person who was wrong, (2) having that person resent you, and (3) insulting those people whose banquets you have declined due to the sheer number of invitations.
I wonder what would have happened if you had just let it slide?
Larry and I stand across the workbench from each other. It’s Tuesday night. We’ve been going for pizza at Casa Bianca in Eagle Rock and then to crafting in the studio at the back of the small-town (but serving all of LA) stained glass shop, for two years at this point.
On this particular night, one workbench away, Joanne—on her seventh class of the eight-week course—is fluxing and soldering her first project: a single scoop of solid white glass ice cream, on a tan, brown, white, and clear cone, floating in a translucent, dark-grey background.
Possibly loosened by the knowledge that she will finish tonight and not return next week, she addresses Larry. She mentions Paul’s writing about the salvation given by Jesus.
My buddy the minister asks, “Don’t you mean, Joanne, the two outlines of salvation? The one from Paul and the one from Jesus? They are different.”
“No. I’m talking about the one, clear outline of salvation that Jesus gave in Paul’s letters.”
And then Larry says, “Tell me more.”
What they are talking about is exactly what I’ve been reading in Marcus Borg’s The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon.
Larry gave me the book just a month ago.
He knows the book says the opposite of what she is talking about. (Borg’s point is that without the letters to Paul and without truly understanding who Paul is, the letters that congregations received from Paul might be misunderstood.)
But Larry just says to her, “Go on.”
Class over, we are in the car to drive back to the San Fernando Valley. I ask him—“Dude. Really? What was that about? Borg. Scholarship. Paul’s letters are his ideas of Jesus’s words, not Jesus’ words. Joanne was way off. Why didn’t you set her straight?”
He says “Brian. I know the scholarship. She doesn’t know it. And she didn’t want to learn it.” He pauses. Larry often rests for a moment between sentences.
“She didn’t want to hear from me; she wanted to talk.” Another pause. “So, as I already know what I think, I thought it might be interesting to hear what she thinks.”
Robert Brault wrote: “Today I bent the truth to be kind, and I have no regret, for I am far surer of what is kind than I am of what is true.”
Perhaps, as in the instance with the banana, there is a clear answer.
Perhaps, as in the instance with Paul on salvation, there is a generally-held, scholarly opinion.
But how important are they?
And wouldn’t you rather be kind than right?
Personally, I think Rabbi Brian is onto something here. It depends on the circumstance, of course, but in the polarized society in which we live today maybe shouting what we know to be correct is less important than building bridges with kindness.