Last week, Nelson Mandela died. There were more than enough touching eulogies, and any attempt by me would be shoddy, with the depth of a contact lens. Better to sit back, shut up, and think about a lesson to learn from this great man’s life.

I remember in college avoiding the apartheid issue because it wasn’t part of the way I saw the world. As a staunch anti-communist, I could not abide by the African National Congress, who were backed by the USSR among other nondemocratic entities. I was on the right team, no doubt, as history has shown, but I was wrong on where my allegiances took me, regarding South Africa. I wasn’t supportive of the place. I just wasn’t crazy about any of the players.

My point: The danger of dedicating yourself to “the team” is an immunity to critical thinking. You avoid having to make tougher decisions, or listening, or admitting you might be wrong if you adhere completely to the ideology of the group you’re in.

Don’t get me wrong. The fight against communism was the fight worth having. But it prevented me from seeing that, despite the relationship between communism and Nelson Mandela, I should have been able to handle several thoughts and truths. Why can’t I renounce communism, want to win the Cold War, but accept the necessity of Mandela’s fight? I can enjoy both death metal and poppy electronica — so why can’t I be a cold warrior and a proponent of legitimate revolution? It’s a shallow comparison, but I am a shallow person.

Later, Nelson Mandela made a similar mistake. He looked at Gaddafi, Fidel Castro, Iran, among others (all enemies of America) as his teammates. He ended up embracing those who subjugated their people when he should have embraced the people instead. He said crappy stuff about our country.

But perhaps swayed by an ideology of revolution that always pits us against them, he overlooked the darkness his allies blanketed over their own helpless constituents. Maybe he chatted with these creeps privately about their brutality — I don’t know. Unlike the Spice Girls, I never got close enough for a picture.

His mistake — misidentifying his allies — might be honorable. Perhaps these despots and dictators were the only people who gave a damn about him. And as a revolutionary, maybe it was harder to judge other revolutionaries. But at some point, Mandela had to see that Gaddafi was no Mandela. These rebel pretenders were up to no good.

Similarly, I should have realized that even though commies were in Mandela’s corner, Mandela’s corner was the right place to be.

It serves to remember this, when faced with sticky issues and you feel inclined to pick your side, rather than momentarily suspend the idea of “sides.” Sometimes, the idea of “sides” is the last thing you can possibly embrace. For choosing a side means, under no circumstances, can you entertain facts that might come up. And no one is immune to being wrong. Ask my wife.

Team loyalty works in a lot of areas. Sports — it’s great. It makes mediocre teams rise above their station. But let’s face it — if your coach starts drinking and makes idiotic decisions, someone on that team better speak up.

I was with a team player recently who said that he would never trust someone not on his team politically. He said this, as a number of people not on “his team” were nearby. Good people. What he was saying, simply, was, “Whatever you say, I don’t believe, even if you’re right.” From then on, I could never trust this person, because he just said, “The correct answer is not as important as us sticking to one story.”

That’s a mistake. You have to be able to listen to everyone and try to understand and hear their facts. The more you debunk theirs, and the more they debunk yours, the better your position ultimately ends up. I recommend Jonathan Rauch’s book, Kindly Inquisitors, which defines this “liberal science” better than anyone. Right now my opinions barely approach in coherence what he wrote maybe 20 years ago.

Call me wrong (and you will), but no matter how much you despise the current administration (and your team, therefore is my team: I also despise the administration on certain major things), you cannot let your loyalty to that side take you places that prove unwise. I would love to condemn President Obama over the NSA revelations, but what pulls me from “team thinking” is knowing that the NSA works not for Obama but all of us. And what they are doing has been distorted by both left and right.

I could express outrage, but I’d have to close myself off from recognizing changes in both our national security and the nature of communication among people who want us dead.

In the end, what’s the point of adhering to a team if it’s only to be part of a team?

Isn’t it better, as Rauch says, to be less wrong every day? That’s an actual, realistic goal. Adhering to a team ideology, however, will always end up having you be more wrong every day, for its blinders prevent you from the necessary criticism that shapes rough ideas into right thoughts. Or rough ideas that need to go.

The upside is that by relinquishing the dedication to a team, real teamwork between trustworthy adversaries might actually blossom. In that, the sharing of information, facts, and experience makes dialogue less divisive, if no less spirited. We might talk to each other if we think we’re actually listening.

But if I’m wrong now, I’ll surely hear about it. But bombard me with facts, not feelings. That way, I’ll find out that I’m wrong faster. And I won’t miss another Mandela next time

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