I’m wrong sometimes. I’ve been wrong about a lot of things.
One clear example: when I started this blog in January 2017, I thought it was a reasonable expectation to write a new post once a week. For a lot of bloggers that’s definitely doable. But I underestimated how much time and mental energy would be taken up by my research, with two new projects going at the same time and exciting data rolling in and getting me hooked on bench science (again), and with my last semester as Art Director of the Berkeley Science Review bringing responsibilities and a chance to put my often-dormant art skills to use (see: the cover for the spring 2017 issue). I also started blogging for the BSR, which took up what little bandwidth for writing I had. I wasn’t slacking off, but I still felt guilty for neglecting my blog, mostly because I had made an unrealistic promise to myself to write more than I could. I’m not trying to make excuses for myself, but more to be honest about the reality of the situation so that I won’t feel guilty when I inevitably blog less often than I aspire to, and so I can have more realistic expectations in the future. And this is okay.
I’m going to be an armchair psychologist for a second. People often feel uncomfortable being wrong, to the point where sometimes when presented with solid evidence disproving our claims, we’ll dig our heels in deeper. I wonder if this is just human nature, or if this has to do with people never learning to be comfortable with being wrong sometimes. When we realize we’re wrong, or when someone calls us out on it, we react as if it’s a personal attack as opposed to an objective fact that has nothing to do with our personal character. Or people see being visibly wrong as demonstrating that we are unintelligent, or careless, or incompetent: all things that could affect others’ perception of us, and people in general don’t want to be disliked or shunned by others (I think very few people truly give zero fucks about what others think about them, much as some of us try to behave that way).
A little bit of worrying about what others think about us is fine; it’s what allows us not to socially alienate other people and helps make us empathetic. It’s also good, and admirable, to stand firm on our beliefs when we have a strong backing for them. The problem arises when we ignore or dismiss evidence that we are wrong and continue making decisions based on our false views.
The way white Americans in general view and internalize our country’s history of mass atrocities against racial minorities is a good example of this. How many of us feel, and I mean really feel, an ever-present sense of guilt over the way black Americans were first enslaved, and then discriminated against and brutalized during the Jim Crow era? Or how Native Americans had their land seized and were forced on a death march on which thousands of people died? How many of us, thinking back to U.S. history class in high school, involuntarily felt their stomach knot in disgust when learning about these things, because we were instilled with the idea that these atrocities were, and still are, a national responsibility to be shouldered by every American? Do we constantly think about how the historical fact of these hideous acts continues to affect our society now, and how exactly it contributes to the challenges faced by African American and Native American communities? No, most white Americans probably don’t. I’m willing to bet most of us learned about these things and thought, “Well, that’s terrible,” and on a deeper level, “It’s in the past and it’s not my problem”. Many of us were probably even taught a watered-down version of these events, or worse, a very inaccurate one.
Contrast this to how things are in post-World War II Germany*: people learn about the Holocaust multiple times in school, in great detail, with the intent to accept what happened but not forget it, and to learn from it. There’s some level of national collective guilt. It’s not that Germans whose grandparents fought in World War II should feel as though they are personally responsible for the actions of the Nazis, but rather that they are responsible for remembering what happened, recognizing how terrible it was, and preventing something that horrific from happening again. We just don’t do that in the U.S. We acknowledge that mistreatment of racial minorities was bad, but we then distance ourselves from it and don’t learn about it extensively, shrouding ourselves in a protective blanket of ignorance. We don’t fully take on the historical responsibility of being wrong. And because of this, an undercurrent of racism has been allowed to flourish.
In current U.S. politics, admitting you’re wrong is often seen as a sign of weakness. Politicians won’t admit they’re wrong unless it’s so glaringly obvious that people have figured it out without them even needing to admit it. They do this because if they do admit they’re wrong, they face serious backlash; their constituents lose faith in them, assuming they have no deeply held principles, or can’t be decisive, or that they aren’t loyal. This has to stop. We need to be more accepting of people being wrong, as long as they acknowledge it and try to make it right. Otherwise there’s no incentive for people to correct their mistakes, and all the more reason for them to dig their heels in and rationalize sticking to information that’s obviously wrong, or ignore information counter to their incorrect beliefs. We need to place more value on honesty, as opposed to stubborn refusal to entertain solid ideas counter to your own. We need to admit that we aren’t perfect, and that that’s okay, as long as we’re consistently trying to better ourselves.
*I am not an expert on how Germans handle teaching of the Holocaust and have no personal experience with it, so I’m basing my opinion on what I’ve heard from the German people I’ve asked about this issue and some Googling. I don’t mean to put Germany on a pedestal; rather I think this is a good example of doing the right thing.
Featured image: A very big newt in Lake County.