A very important train ride.Posted: September 25, 2012
“You just hate being wrong.”
I used to hear a lot of that, and I always thought it was unfair. I don’t really care about being wrong. I never have. The correct answer existed independently of myself and whoever was accusing me of arrogance. Whether I was right or wrong, when the truth came out, someone would have learned something, or at least consolidated their knowledge. It was a win-win situation.
It wasn’t really that I hated being wrong, it was that the other person hated being proved wrong, and had to retain some kind of dignity – it was the teenage equivalent of saying “yeah, well, you’ve got a stupid face so nyeah”. I was right a lot (not all) of the time because I tend not to get into debates over objective facts if I’m not at least 95% certain I’m correct. Anything below 95% and every statement I make will be followed by “I don’t know, I could be wrong.” But if my internal computing reached that percentage of certainty, I’d get involved. I wouldn’t get worked up, because I knew I was right, and when I was inevitably proven so, I would appear as a smug asshole. Even though I’d rarely thrown a tantrum over being proved wrong, I developed a reputation as someone who “just has to be right all the time”. Luckily, we now live in a world where we can consult the internet at any time, so now I simply say “well, go ahead and Google it” and the sorry proceedings are over before they begin.
There’s a difference, however, between being wrong and being misguided.
And good lord, I have been misguided so many times throughout my life that I wonder when it will ever end. Maybe it won’t. Like I said, I wouldn’t get into arguments over facts unless I was mostly sure I was correct in the first place, but for some reason, I would throw myself fully into arguments over subjective things, things I treated as completely objective. Things like music.
On one of my websites, back from 2002 (made in Frontpage Express, sigh), I posted a diatribe about what ‘good’ music was and what ‘bad’ music was. It seemed to me that there was some immutable line between that which was good and valuable, and that which was bad and worthless. Our tastes could differ within those boundaries, but they never crossed. I think we all have the same line within ourselves, but I believed that, like the correct answer, it existed independently of our minds.
In my first couple of months at university when I was 16, I’d sometimes get the train back to Irvine with my sister. One time, we met Graeme Hunter, a friend of my brother’s, who was no stranger to lively debate. Now, I’ve watched Graeme be wrong about a lot of things, but I am forever thankful to him, because in that 35 minute train ride, he absolutely tore my world apart with an argument that went on to define the rest of my life.
“How do you know there’s good music, Ryan?” he said.
“Because some things are good, and some things are bad.”
“Yeah, but that’s just your opinion.”
“You can’t just cop out like that,” I replied. “There have been musicians around for hundreds of years who’ve studied and practiced and become masters, and they’d say today’s music was shit.”
“That’s their opinion.”
“But they’re geniuses! And they know what good music is!”
“Yeah – in their opinion. Everything is just someone’s opinion.”
Is it a recursive argument? Sure. Does it seem ridiculous now that something so simple would have such an effect on me? Absolutely. But I was completely flabbergasted. I can honestly say I have never been so lost for words before or since. I’ve come close on the few occasions that someone has presented me with an idea that had me questioning everything I’ve ever known, but no-one ever quite turned everything upside down the way Graeme did on that train ride. My sister whooped and hollered in joy, so thrilled was she to see her annoying little brother utterly trounced. She’s another one of those people who believes I can’t stand being wrong.
It took a long time and a lot more experience for this to be internalised, but once you introduce that element of doubt to a mind, it can never truly be rid of it.
Almost a decade later, while I was on /r/music tonight (I don’t remember why on earth I’d be on /r/music), I saw a comment by a user who insisted that there was a line between music and noise, that criticism could not be dismissed, and I saw myself ten years ago. I saw someone who was afraid of how arbitrary everything seemed to be, and was defending one simple truth s/he could hold on to, to set themselves apart from those who didn’t seem to take music as seriously as it deserved to. I sent this hasty reply:
I think some people want music to have some objectivity, some ‘line’ by which we can define good and bad taste, because it’s easier. It’s easier than accepting its complete subjectivity. It gives us a goal: if you want to have good taste, listen to this music and not that music.
There are no rules, and there is no right answer. People like different kinds of music because it appeals to certain aspects of their personality, which is defined simply by the experiences they’ve had in their lives. Nothing more.
You can draw your own line, but remember it remains only that: your own.
I’ve always despised those “write a letter to your younger self” exercises, because they seem like a whole load of vapid nonsense, yet more glorification of childhood as some ultimate experience we can never supplant. But tonight, I got as close as I ever could to actually doing that, and it felt kind of nice. It reminded me of how far I’ve come, and how far I might yet go in the next ten years.