How To Be Right summary

How To Be Right is a book by British radio talk show host James O’Brien. If you’re unfamiliar with O’Brien, he is notorious in the UK for clips where he ‘schools’ callers on their beliefs.

It’s worth watching a few of them on YouTube before you read the book. You’ll get a better understanding of the contents of the book, as some of these conversations are referenced inside.

The book looks at a variety of topics such as Islamism, Brexit and political correctness and asks why people think the way they do. 

We are living in a world where beliefs once considered extreme are becoming mainstream. Where people are whipped up into fear and frenzy over innocuous news stories that have been taken out of context.

O’Brien details his encounters with these topics on his radio show and tries to show us how people become paranoid with fear or believing statements despite the overwhelming evidence indicating that they are lies.

I found this an interesting read and look into the mindset of people. O’Brien can come across as hubristic and sanctimonious at times, but the book is still a great read nonetheless.

How To Be Right summary

Takeaway 1 – Our beliefs can be built on shaky foundations

We all have beliefs. Every one of us. Whether we believe in God or not. Whether we believe in Conservatism or Socialism. All of us have beliefs, many of which define us.

We like to think that these beliefs are infallible and always right. But that’s not always the case. Despite thinking that they are always right, it’s not always true.

A lot of us can be taken in by false beliefs. There are numerous stories around this. Indeed, it’s how most cults form. People are taken by fantastical stories and become convinced they are correct.

They often still maintain this belief when events turn out to prove those beliefs are false. An example is the Heaven’s Gate group. They believed in order to reach a spaceship that was following the Hale-Bopp comet, they had to take part in ritual suicides.

On 26 March 1997, police found 39 people dead in a property in San Diego. This is an extreme example, but it highlights how unwavering faith in our beliefs can be deadly.

We should still believe in things, but we should always question them. When the facts provide evidence to the contrary, we should take stock and reevaluate our position.

As James O’Brien highlights in How To Be Right, not enough of us are doing this. We should question ourselves constantly. Why do we believe this? How did I find out about this?

In our lives, we should adopt the following maxim from the great Greek philosopher, Socrates:

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Takeaway 2 – The media has a responsibility to report fairly

One of the issues of our age is fake news. This term does not mean what Trump’s supporters think it does, that the mainstream media is lying. Obviously, they won’t report every story correctly, but compared to certain media outlets, their reporting is on point most of the time.

Instead, fake news refers to stories that have been manufactured to whip up fear and hatred. In Britain, we have had a lot of this during the past few years, mainly thanks to Brexit.

One of the reasons Brexit happened in the first place is due to certain newspapers misrepresenting facts about the European Union. An infamous story about bendy bananas, stating the EU had brought in legislation specifying the dimensions of a banana caused an uproar.

It later transpired that the story had been blown out of all proportion. The author of the story? A journalist by the name of Boris Johnson. 

Not everybody looks into stories in depth. A worrying statistic about the UK is that the National Literacy Trust estimates 7.1 million people in the country are functionally illiterate

That means they have a reading age of 11 or below and can only understand texts that are straightforward or on topics that they are familiar with. 

If you plaster newspapers with grandiose headlines such as ‘Enemies of the People’ or ‘Crush the Saboteurs’, people who are functionally illiterate are unlikely to question whether what they are reading is correct or not.

In this environment, it’s easy to mislead people and when facts are twisted, democracies become fragile. They rely on accurate reporting of the facts for people to make informed decisions.

We have seen what happens when the media acts with bias, it leads to totalitarian states and human tragedy. We should all be more vigilant about what we are reading and where we get our information from. 

As Anne Applebaum shows in Twilight of Democracy, if we don’t tackle this, regimes that have an axe to grind will find more than enough people willing to spout mistruths.

Takeaway 3 – It’s easy to become whipped up into an angry frenzy

Following on from the media, the result of stories that bend the truth is that they can whip people into a frenzy.

It’s remarkable how easy this is. People can become filled with rage over some of the most bizarre things.

This is made worse in the age of social media where anyone can express an opinion. Thus, they could be angry about things that aren’t factually accurate.

What is the solution to this? It’s hard to stop people from writing rubbish on the internet, but the simple solution is to filter what you read.

We have the ability to choose not to read these articles. Or, if we do read them, choose not to become angry. Instead, we should critique the story and ascertain whether it is true or not.

Self-regulation is perhaps the best strategy to take. Police yourself when it comes to anger. If you find yourself getting angry, ask yourself why. O’Brien receives a lot of callers that are angry about a variety of topics.

When he questions them about their anger, it’s interesting to see that their anger is built on a house of cards.

A lot of the times, they are unable to explain why they are angry, just that they are angry. This is not a healthy situation to be in.

Being angry takes up a lot of energy and diverts it away from what is useful. Take James O’Brien advice and next time you find yourself getting angry at news stories, ask yourself two questions.

Why is this making me angry and is it true? These two questions should help reduce the probability that we become angry over often insignificant stories.

Favourite Quotes

  • “It is a simple reflection of the fact that hardly anyone is asked to explain their opinions these days; to outline not just what they believe but why.”
  • “Terrorists invite us to turn on each other with anger and mistrust, and this conversation demonstrates how many people in my profession and among the wider public accept that invitation with alacrity.”
  • “The idea that ‘freedom of speech’ somehow equates with a freedom to spout undiluted, often inflammatory nonsense without being contradicted or called out is currently more popular on both sides of the Atlantic than at any other point in living memory. I believe it boils down to a simpler truth than many of us are prepared to admit to: some people are determined to believe in the fundamental badness of others.”
  • “Think about what ‘normal’ behaviour is. Once, it was normal to see doctors advertising cigarettes, to own slaves, to be free to rape your wife.”
  • “For all the books I’ve read by the likes of Primo Levi, George Orwell and Hannah Arendt, I never really recognised that the populations which allowed and undertook the vilest acts in human history were exactly the same as my own.”

How To Be Right review

This How To Be Right summary has looked at an interesting book that reflects on how people form their views and what happens when they are challenged on them.

The beauty of this book is that it’s based on conversations O’Brien had with callers on his radio show.

A lot of these conversations involved O’Brien trying to unpick misconceptions or falsehoods that his callers were espousing.

It may seem harmless when we see comments on the internet that appear to be outlandish, but a lot of people hold these beliefs and believe them to be true.

Events after the 2020 presidential election in America show this to be the case. Despite Joe Biden winning by over 7 million votes, there are still a lot of people who dispute the result.

The author can come across as arrogant at times, but he means well. He’s highlighting a major problem in society at the moment, which is that for some people, their own facts are preferable to reality.

The title of the book, How To Be Right, might be stretching the contents of this book, but it does contain some truth about ho to separate fact from fiction.

After living in a world where the truth has seemed to be less important than ever, it’s a book that will make you consider just how important truth is.

Who should read How To Be Right?

If you’re British, you’ll find this book interesting. A lot of it draws on the aftermath of the Brexit referendum in 2016 and how tribal people have become in their beliefs.

Even if you’re not British, this book will provide an interesting look at the psyche of a portion of the nation. The anecdotal conversations displayed will tell you more than some contemporary books on British politics.