It’s a hard thing to do – trust me, I know from experience. That’s why I respect people who are able to do it. Aaron Friel of UNIFI wrote an excellent post about why he was wrong about his previous opinion that you “don’t feel the trolls,” and why it’s important to admit when you’re wrong. This was prompted by the post written by his clubmate Keenan and my response (well, and a lot of introspection, of course). It’s long, but worth the read. I particularly relate to this back story:
I was the kid that teachers described as “precocious” and students described as “know-it-all”. That’s not a compliment to me, mind you. It took me most of my life to admit I was wrong. If I claimed knowledge I didn’t have, I rationalized it away later. This started to change in middle school, when surrounded by the bright students of Malcolm Price Lab, I had to articulate my beliefs and then actually defend them. I can easily say I’ve never cheated on a test, but I’ll admit now that I cheated on some arguments. When confronted with evidence to the contrary, I rarely relented. I’d rationalize away the flaws in my argument and persist.
I first admitted I was wrong privately, a small victory. It was after a mock debate on whether or not to allow a chemical plant to be built near a river. During that debate, I lied. I claimed knowledge I didn’t have to solidify my argument. I don’t even recall whether or not we won; the sting of realizing as I was saying something that I had no evidence whatsoever of its truth washed away the other memories of that day. I looked up my claim later online and I was … wrong.
Since first admitting I was wrong, I had a lot of catching up to do. At Cedar Falls High School, I opted to sit with people I didn’t know, and with whom I didn’t agree; once I sat with conservatives and people who quoted scripture in defense of their positions. I came away a better person for it. I learned better how to articulate an argument and to submit it to criticism. I also learned not to take personally some of the harsher remarks. Especially, I learned something akin to Hanlon’s razor and took it to heart. It became the one thing I would always fall back on in an argument. My preferred version goes a little like this:Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by misunderstanding.
Sitting between Guy-That-Quotes-Scripture and Guy-That-Thinks-Iraq-Had-Nuclear-Weapons led to some very prideful arguments, if you’ll allow the understatement. Words were exchanged and the bell would sound and we’d return the next day, maybe with a printed off article or two to back up our positions. I’m not sure if we ever budged, but I learned not to interpret malice into their words. We didn’t see eye to eye, but there was no hate. I was often wrong even then, of course, but they’re no longer around to hear me admit it.
Learning to gracefully accept being wrong is my Moby Dick, I’m still working out the kinks.
At the same time, I think our community is, too. In the past six months we’ve had some prideful arguments. Unfortunately there’s no lunch bell to send us off to classes and give us time to think. We give ourselves no time to relax, and no room to recant our invectives before beginning another argument.
Our movement is predicated on the belief that we can and will be wrong. A lot. And that’s OK. When we admit we’re wrong, we grow as people, as a community.
Honestly, I went through the same thing. I was a precocious child. McCreights also tend to be tremendously stubborn – you should see our Thanksgiving dinner table “discussions” – which is a dangerous trait when coupled with smarts. It took me a long time to be able to admit I was wrong. I still have a hard time with it – ask any of my friends when we get into a debate about trivial stuff that I insist I’m correct about. I haven’t completely stopped (Jen’s friends: “Ha!”), but at least now I recognize that I’m being stupid.
And while the internet has the disadvantage of not having a lunch bell, I think it also has its perks. I would say learning about science is the most important thing that taught me how to be wrong – but blogging comes in close second. You’re constantly exposed to comments by people who disagree with you. Some of these comments are obviously incorrect or wildly silly, but plenty make me stop and think. I probably come off a lot more stubborn that I am, because a lot of my growth is behind the scenes. There are plenty of times where I start writing a post, stop, start, stop, and ultimately never post it because I know I’m unsure about what I’m saying. I also know I don’t necessarily agree with things I wrote when I first started blogging, and a couple of years from now I’ll probably disagree with some stuff I’m saying now.
And frequently, I am so thankful I didn’t start my blog sooner. I had some pretty ignorant or embarrassing opinions as recent as the beginning of college. I used to be adamantly anti-drugs and against underaged drinking. I thought sex was reserved for only when you’re madly in love, and casual sex was just for those “slutty” people. Even though I used the label “feminist,” I had some pretty backwards and frankly sexist views about women – especially feminine women. And I even used to be quite the tone troll when it came to atheism – I thought singing kumbaya was the only way of communicating. My first comment on Pharyngula was how PZ’s harshness was – if I remember correctly – “pointless dick-waving.” Stupid and sexist.
I don’t necessarily agree with Aaron 100% about the situation, specifically the part about “poisoning the well.” I think harshness has it’s place in communication – let’s not rehash the whole firebrand/diplomat debate all over again. And I think “tone trolling” is a real thing that distracts from the real issues being discussed. I have a feeling female bloggers are on the receiving end of tone trolling far more often since women are stereotyped as being nice and gentle, though it’s just speculation – I wish someone would do a scientific study of blog comments. And it’s also annoying how fellow atheists seem to employ arguments about “tone” when criticism is pointed within the group, rather than outside of it. Not as many people object to harsh words aimed at the religion (though obviously some do).
But while we’re admitting that we’re wrong, I will confess to one of my major weaknesses: I don’t always choose my words carefully when I’m angry. I get sloppy. When I point out someone is a “white male” or has “privilege,” I’m not trying to say that’s inherently bad. I’m not trying to say “You can’t weigh in on this discussion because of something you can’t control.” I’m trying to say that it’s patronizing when people try to tell minorities how they should feel and react to discrimination, even if they’re allies with the best of intentions. That sometimes you have to take a step back and think, “Maybe I don’t quite understand where they’re coming from.”
Trust me. There are times where I’ve read discussions about if something is racist, and I’ll have some pretty dumb opinions. I certainly don’t consider myself racist, but no one is perfect. I mean, come on, I’m from Indiana – my high school had 1400 students and you could count the number of black students on one hand. Lack of exposure breeds ignorance. But instead of writing an angry blog post about how black people are overreacting and should calm down, I recognize that I’m probably being dumb and that I should just sit and listen for a while longer.
And sitting and listening is the number one thing that’s made me eventually able to change my mind. This is especially true about feminism. Years ago I purposefully subscribed to lots of feminist blogs that I didn’t necessarily agree with. A lot of times they made me rage. But instead of unsubscribing, I kept reading and thinking. Eventually a lot of arguments won me over once I got over my stubbornness. And the things I still disagree about are now for real reasons that I can articulate, not ignorance.
Admitting you’re wrong is hard to do, but it’s also the sign of a good skeptic.