The Three Hardest WordsPosted: May 13, 2013
Some guys will say that “I love you” are the hardest words in the English language to string together, but “I was wrong” are even harder, for both men and women. If you don’t believe me, make a mistake about something, anything, but make sure to do it in front of at least one person. It’s even more difficult when we have to challenge our own sacred cows, our most cherished ideas and beliefs.
Once we’ve staked out a position on just about anything re-evaluating it, even in the light of new facts, can be hard. It’s not just a matter of admitting error; most of us are personally invested in our opinions and beliefs, and we have defended them in arguments, sometimes passionately, and to go back and admit that each one of those passionate defenses was wrong can feel shameful. The desire to double-down and discount any contradictory information can be alluring (what psychologists refer to as “confirmation bias”), and the more invested we are in our own position the more likely we are to fall prey to it.
I understand this tendency as well as anyone. Back in late 2002 and early 2003 I truly believed that invading Iraq was the right course of action and would end in a quick victory for the U.S. and its allies. I believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; I believed that we were doing the right thing for the citizens of Iraq and for our allies; I believed that we would have a quick and relatively easy victory; and I believed that the benefits would vastly outweigh the costs. I was wrong.
When No Child Left Behind was first passed, I believed it was good legislation. I believed we needed some kind of accountability in schools, some way to measure when children were actually learning and to end “social promotion” so as to stop graduating kids who couldn’t read or do math. I believed this new system would fix the problems we had; instead it just created new ones. It endowed us with perverse incentives ranging from “teaching to the test” to cheating for cash and prizes. And kids still aren’t learning. I was wrong.
When I was barely a teenager, 13 or 14 years old, I was honestly a little homophobic. I was very uncomfortable around homosexuals or even the idea of homosexuality. I don’t know why; maybe because I was just starting to understand my own sexuality and everything was awkward, and I had to reject everything that I couldn’t understand. Maybe I thought there was something wrong with them. Maybe I thought they were “coming to get me”. I honestly have no idea. I was wrong.
It’s hard to admit that you’re wrong. It’s hard to admit that what you truly, deeply, firmly believed was absolute, unvarnished truth at one point in time simply isn’t. I think that’s because nobody holds these ideas and takes these positions planning to be wrong; we honestly believed we were right at the time, whether it’s because we didn’t have sufficient information, or because we were misled, or simply because we were endowed with certain prejudices, or maybe just because it seemed like a good idea at the time but since then it’s proven not to be.
There’s nothing wrong with being wrong. It doesn’t make you a bad person, it doesn’t make you evil. What’s bad and wrong and makes you a bad person is when you’re wrong, demonstrably wrong, and you refuse to acknowledge it, own up to it, and change. Unfortunately more and more often what we’re not only seeing but demanding in our politicians is that they stake out a position and they cling insistently, tenaciously, viciously to that position and refuse to back away from it regardless of how the circumstances might have changed, or how it might have been proven that what seemed like a good idea at the time simply wasn’t, or how it might have been proven that “Look, you were never right in the first place, just admit it and move on.” We call them flip-floppers, we call them wishy-washy, we use it as an excuse to attack rather than acknowledging that they’ve grown and matured.
We tell kids “When you’re wrong you should admit it.” We expect of adults that when they are wrong they will acknowledge it and change. What we need to demand of our leaders that when they are wrong they admit it, they acknowledge it, and they do something about it.