On Being Wrong (And Admitting It)
My friend leans confessionally across the table towards me, over his plate of pizza. Like many of my friends, he is nonmonogamous, queer, kinky, feminist, and intensely liberal. He has already begun a slow campaign of publicly outing himself in what seems to be every way possible, which will continue for the next several years. I know all of these things about him, but I don’t know what he’s about to tell me.
On this day, we’re in a D'Agostino's Pizza, he and I and several others, getting food before a showing of HUMP, an annual amateur porn film festival hosted by relationship and sex advice columnist Dan Savage. We’re talking politics.
“I’m ashamed to admit this, but I voted for W,” he says. “The first time.”
Oh. I laugh.
“I voted for him the second time,” I say, shrugging. Unlike my friend, I’m not particularly ashamed of this fact.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think George W. Bush was a good president. If I were in 2004 the person I am today, I would not have voted for him. But 14 years ago, I was a different person, with different opinions and less knowledge and understanding of the world, and I believed I was making the right choice when I cast that ballot for Bush the younger.
I’m not ashamed to have voted based on my principles and my knowledge at the time. And I’m not ashamed to admit today that I was wrong, about many of the things I thought at the time, things which caused me to believe that George W. Bush was the better option of the candidates I had to choose from.
Back when I cast my vote for George W. Bush, I was 21 years old, voting in my first presidential election. I was wrong about a lot of shit back then.
I’m probably still wrong about a lot of shit now. Though less, I hope, than when I was 21.
In 2004, I believed that Peter Jackson’s prophesied film adaptation of The Hobbit would no doubt be amazing. I believed that Johnny Depp was cool. I believed that Phish was done touring, thank god, and no one would ever be able to force me to go to one of their stupid concerts.
I was wrong about all of those things. (And fuck you very much, Phish, by the way.)
Here’s something else I was wrong about:
In my late teens and into my early 20s, I described myself as pro-life. I believed that abortion was morally wrong. I believed that women should not have the right to end the life of a fetus they were carrying. I was not in favor of total illegalization, but I believed that abortion laws should be more restrictive. I believed these things strongly. They were important to me.
I remain, at 35, morally conflicted about abortion. I do not know whether I would ever, under any circumstances, have one myself. But I also recognize that’s a thing I can’t know unless I’m faced with circumstances in which I might have to make that choice. And I was wrong, utterly wrong, to think I had the right to dictate or judge anyone else’s choice in such a circumstance.
I still want, very much, to have a world in which fewer abortions are performed. But my belief that more restrictive laws would in any way help to achieve that was absolutely wrong. Access to safe and legal abortions keeps women alive who would otherwise risk their lives getting unsafe and illegal abortions. Comprehensive sex education and access to affordable birth control are far safer and more effective means of reducing abortions than tighter laws could ever be.
I am not embarrassed to have believed and cared strongly about this issue when I was young, even though I was wrong. And I was really, really wrong.
I learned things. I read things. I listened to people who knew more than I did and had experienced more than I had. And I began to realize all the ways in which I was wrong. I was well on my way to changing my mind about abortion by the time I voted for George W. Bush. (Thanks, college education.)
The thing about being wrong is that it’s an opportunity to learn better.
If you think that sounds like the kind of shit your high school teacher would have said, well, you’re right, I am a former high school teacher. But I believe, down to my core, that our collective agreement on the shamefulness of being wrong is a critical mistake for our society.
Because people avoid things that make them feel ashamed or embarrassed. They prefer not to think about those things, and they certainly don’t want to tell other people about those things.
If you change your mind, you are implicitly admitting you were wrong. You have to bear the shame that goes along with having been wrong – and we learn that shame early on in our lives. As a grade school student, you probably laughed at your classmates for giving the wrong answer, and reveled in your superiority when you knew the right one.
As adults, then, it’s much easier and more convenient to simply refuse to consider that you might be wrong. You're not the fool – the people who think you're wrong are the fools.
If you convince yourself of your infallibility, you don’t ever have to worry about being wrong. Isn’t that nice?
And so we end up in a world where people treat education as an enemy, because education has a way of forcing you to admit that, oops, yeah, you might have been fallible after all.
But we should not be ashamed of having been wrong. We should be ashamed if we refuse to confront our own ideas and beliefs, if we refuse to learn more and do better because we are afraid we might have to admit that we were wrong in the first place.
I’m not ashamed that I was once wrong about something. I’m proud to have learned better.
I hope that as long as I live, I will keep learning better and keep admitting when I am wrong.
(I’m not wrong about Phish, though. They’re the fucking worst.)