What Price to Admit Error?

What Price to Admit Error?

By Don Hall

It is statistically impossible for me to be right all the time.

I think I'm right when I say it or write it or take a stand for something. We already know that we all—not just me—tend to look for facts that support our point of view, which is why there are still Americans who believe that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in the attacks of 9/11 in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

And as a constantly evolving creature of the mind, I'm still working on being able to admit when I'm wrong. Part of that comes from the stigma of being wrong in this society. We are punished for making mistakes. In politics, at the workplace, in social situations. And because being wrong and admitting it comes with such a cost in status and ego, we tend to dig in our heels even when we know we are full of shit.

  • I voted for Ronald Reagan in my first presendential election at age 18. I WAS WRONG.
  • I voted for Rahm Emmanuel in the first Chicago mayoral campaign without a Daley in my lifetime. I WAS WRONG.
  • I used to be completely anti-gay. I WAS WRONG.
  • I used to think that women who dressed a certain way had some responsibility for being attacked. I WAS WRONG.
  • That fried burrito at 3 a.m. from the sketchy all-night taco place. WRONG AGAIN.
  • Noxema on my bunghole when it was sore from a night of intense diarhea due to a fried burrito at 3 a.m. REALLY, OVERWHELMINGLY WRONG.

I was also wrong about Louis C.K. Sure, when I made my semi-defense of the man, no one had actually come out and declared that he was a sick asshat who just couldn't stop exposing himself to women, but I was still wrong. Joe, however, was dead right. C.K. has made his mea culpa and we'll see if he makes amends. But I was WRONG.


"Mistakes can be hard to digest, so sometimes we double down rather than face them. Our confirmation bias kicks in, causing us to seek out evidence to prove what we already believe. The car you cut off has a small dent in its bumper, which obviously means that it is the other driver’s fault.
Psychologists call this cognitive dissonancethe stress we experience when we hold two contradictory thoughts, beliefs, opinions or attitudes. For example, you might believe you are a kind and fair person, so when you rudely cut someone off, you experience dissonance. To cope with it, you deny your mistake and insist the other driver should have seen you, or you had the right of way even if you didn’t.
'Cognitive dissonance is what we feel when the self-concept—I’m smart, I’m kind, I’m convinced this belief is true—is threatened by evidence that we did something that wasn’t smart, that we did something that hurt another person, that the belief isn’t true,' said Carol Tavris, a co-author of the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).”
Source: "Why It's SO Hard to Admit You're Wrong" — New York Times

  • You think that by acknowledging white privilege, white people will then have to do something about it. WRONG. 
  • You believe that the fact that you are outraged and offended will lead to change in language and daily social interactions. WRONG.
  •  You're convinced that by telling those whose help you seek to shut up and listen and let you give the orders, they will. SERIOUSLY MISTAKEN.
  • You believe that by calling people you've never met a racist/sexist/monster, they will miraculously agree and change their ignorant ways. WRONG.
  • You tell yourself the Diet Coke and 20 minutes on the exercise bike mitigates the effects of that Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese. NOPE.

There is nothing bad about being wrong. Admitting it has, however, become the worst possible thing one can do in today's punishment over rehabilitation society.

I don't think this is unusual or that it was brought on by social media or a generation of thin-skinned kids told that hurt feelings are cause for scorched Earth retribution. We all know the story about the carpenter-cum-Messiah who, when confronted with a crowd of angry moralizers setting to stone a prostitute to death. "He who is without sin, cast away" and all that jazz. We've always been like this.

The price for admitting a mistake is almost always destruction and shame. Victims of crimes can't admit any culpability in the crime because that paints them as somehow responsible for it which is a ridiculous assumption in most cases. "He was asking for it" is as dimwitted a response as it comes.

Here's the kicker (from the same NYT article above):

"Another study, from the Stanford researchers Carol Dweck and Karina Schumann, found that subjects were more likely to take responsibility for their mistakes when they believed they had the power to change their behavior."

Perception of one another grants that power to change behavior. Shame and retribution solidify the concrete of cognitive dissonance and, in many ways, leaves the mistake-maker no choice but to fight back, stand her ground, and refuse to recognize their responsibility. Without that belief in the power to learn from a mistake, no wisdom can be achieved.

If you want people to see the good in you when you fuck up, you need to do the same to others when they blow it as well. Empathy is fine but compassion is better.

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