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ValueSpeak: The right to be wrong

Published: Saturday, May 3 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

Early in my professional career I worked for a good man named Joe.

As far as our company was concerned, he was Hose A. I was Hose B.

You kind of have to know the Spanish version of “Joe” — José — to get that joke.

Joe — Hose A — was a great and visionary leader. He was bold, innovative and really, really smart. He was also very patient with me as I struggled to learn about the business and how to effectively run our corporate communications.

One time, when our stock prices were absurdly low, I was having lunch with him. I tried to impress him with my perspective and confidence.

“This would be a good time to get my family to buy stock in the company, wouldn’t it?” I asked. “I mean, our stock can’t get any lower, can it? And we’ve got that new facility that we haven’t announced yet. When that is announced our stock is sure to go up, isn’t it?”

Joe stared at me, incredulous, his salad fork still hovering over his plate. Then he smiled, put down his fork and spoke to me calmly.

“The first thing you should know is, if I answer your questions I could go to prison,” he said. Then he explained insider trading and gave me a brief tutorial on stock market volatility, with a passionate mini-diatribe about investment bankers thrown in for good measure.

“Now,” he concluded, “the second thing you should know is this: Never invest money in the stock market that you can’t afford to lose.”

“So you’re saying …”

“I’m not saying anything,” he said, cutting me off and returning to his salad. “That’s just good advice for anyone who is considering buying any stock, any time.”

It was good advice. And since I have never in my life been in a situation where I could afford to lose money, I didn’t invest.

Oh, and Joe didn’t go to jail.

This week, I’ve been thinking about another piece of advice Joe gave me as he helped me grow into my job. There was a man in the community who often spoke out stridently against our company. While there were elements of truth in what he said, there were also elements of … well, not truth. And that really bothered me. I wanted to challenge him, take him on publicly or, at the very least, sue him to get him to — what’s that phrase? — cease and desist.

“There’s nothing actionable here,” said Joe, who was also an attorney. “This is basically a matter of opinion. He has experts who say one thing; we have experts who say something else.”

“But our experts are right, aren’t they?” I asked.

“Well, we certainly think so,” Joe said. “But he and his experts are entitled to their opinion just as we are entitled to ours.”

“But their opinion is, you know, wrong!” I stammered.

Joe smiled at me with the same kind, patient, I’m-not-entirely-sure-why-I-hired-you smile I had seen on his face when I asked about buying stock.

“Even if they are,” he said, “isn’t it great to live in a country where you have the right to be wrong?”

The fact is, I do think it’s great to live in such a country. But as my all-time favorite movie president, Andrew Shepherd in “The American President,” said, "America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ‘cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.’ ”

The noted French philosopher Voltaire put it another way: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

And to be wrong.

To read more by Joseph B. Walker, visit josephbwalker.com. Twitter: JoeWalkerSr

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