How to Be Wrong — Part 2 of 4

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

Okay, I know I promised Part 2 would be a look at the nature of an apology. But I’m thinking first I should make a point about WHY you apologize. Why you even admit to making a mistake at all. So:


Modern-day Conservatives piss me off. For soooo many reasons.

But one of the main reasons is that they’re so goddam SURE they’re right about everything. Given the history of conservatism, you’d think they’d have a few second thoughts. But no.

Because conservatism is, at its roots, “Things should stay just like they are.” Or at its worst, maybe even “Things should go back to the way they were.”

(It always sort of baffles me when I hear about prominent women being conservatives. Because, after all chicky-baby, you little barefoot kitchen-minder – hey, great dinner, by the way, sweetie, and now (fond ass-slap) go do your little thing with the dishes while the grownups talk – THIS is the way men would still be treating you if the world had lived up to your ideals. You’d be without the vote, without the voice, most places without even the right to own property. The freedom you have to be an outspoken conservative was championed and won not by conservatives, but by liberals. Even that vicious, smirking cow Ann Coulter is, in large part, the child of liberal victories.)

Who opposed slavery? Liberals. Who championed it? Conservatives. The ones who wanted things to stay the same. Who created unions, and the 40-hour work week? Liberals? Who opposed it? Conservatives. On and on.

Liberals were there at the founding of the United States. Not the first to think that we should all be — rather than lords and peasants — people who were innately equal, and deserving of an equal chance to succeed and prosper. But certainly some of the noteworthy, and someone who first created a whole new country on that idea.

One of the things that worries me about conservatism, a little-remarked side-effect, is the power it gives you in the moment. Look at the Republicans, who appear to send out talking points memos to the entire GOP every week or so, and then slam those talking points at every opportunity, on TV, on the radio, in public appearances, firing in powerful synchrony, never letting up, like cannons blasting at a weakened timber in the gate of a fort.

Muslim. Birth certificate. Obamacare. Socialism. Socialism. Socialism.

Even as a minority in Congress, they set and controlled the agenda, and the idiot Democrats backed off and let them.

Face it, if you entertain NO doubts about the fact that you’re right, that you’re good, it gives you enormous power in every moment of conflict. Whereas if even the thinnest edge of doubt creeps in, if you pause to ask yourself “Am I really right about this thing? Is this a good thing? What if I’m wrong?” … well, the pause itself is an easily-exploited weakness. Doubt erodes your confidence to advance, or even to hold your position and not lose ground.

But conservative power applies only in the short term. Absolute certainty makes you strong in the moment, but as a long-term strategy, it is enormously weak.

Because … well, because this is the real world, and being right is stronger than being wrong, however long it takes you to get there.

And that’s the power of the progressive. Doubt, the willingness to consider that you might be mistaken, is a weakness in the moment. But in the long run, thoughtfulness is an enormous strength.

Because, again, this is the real world. The place you MUST accept the possibility of being wrong in any one choice, so you can consider all the others and find the strongest and best one.

Take two histories with alternate Thomas Edisons, the one who tried the 10,000 (apocryphal) materials for electric light bulb filaments, and the other who said “No, it’s corn silks, it has to be corn silks, goddamit, because by Jesus I’m not trying anything else!” and you’d have one world of light and one of dark.

This peculiar progressive power, the open-minded willingness to be wrong, applies after the fact as well as before it. It’s not just “I might be wrong” going into it, it’s also “I was wrong” coming out of it.

Because mistakes aren’t dead things to be buried — and hey (heh-heh-heh) when’s the last time you heard any Republican proudly tossing George W. Bush’s name out into the ether? Bush seems to have just poofed out of existence, conservative-history-wise — mistakes are live things to cherish and remember. Mistakes are things you LEARN from. You study them, think about them, figure out where you went wrong.

Victories might be the cherished mile-posts of forward progress, but mistakes are the road along which they’re planted.

Which means you have to look at them.

Slavery isn’t something you bury in an unmarked grave. The Holocaust isn’t something you sweep under the carpet. No, you keep things like that out in the light, hang ‘em up and beat ‘em like dusty rugs, over and over and over, IN PUBLIC, to let people know “See that? See that? Man, we fucked that one up, big-time! Jeez, never want to do THAT again!”

You look at your mistakes, you admit and study them, because you want to achieve something better.

Which is what modern conservatives never seem to want to do. To them, the “something better” is what you have, or what you had 20 years ago, or 50, or off in some every-man-for-himself, the-strong-emerge-victorious-over-the-weak frontier fantasy.

So why do you admit to being wrong? Why do you apologize?

Because in the end, it makes you more powerful. It makes us more powerful together. It allows us to shrug off mistakes and fuckups, the hurts and pains we inevitably bestow upon each other, and make progress together.

You apologize not because you’re weak, but because you’re strong. Strong enough to admit mistakes.

And because you want to be stronger still. Strong enough to attempt to fix them.

[ CONTINUED:  Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4  ]

Beta Culture: Being Grownups on Planet Earth
Thoughts on “Privilege”
Beta Culture: Seeing The Brackets
Race and Culture Again: Bessie and Lois
  • Chiral

    This is why the condemnation of someone as a ‘flip-flopper’ in our politics these days pisses me off. I’d love to vote for someone who could take a mistake and say ‘I know I said that before, but I was wrong, here’s why and I’ll know better next time.’ Even without an apology, I think that would be useful. But our society is so conservative that even self-identified ‘liberals’ are rarely true progressives and, if someone tried that, hardly anyone would vote for them.

    Strength is seen as more important that correctness, but strength is only useful if you know how to adjust the course so you keep pulling in the right direction.

    • Makoto

      If I see a politician say “I was wrong on that, and here’s why”, I don’t call that a flip-flop. I call that an honest reappraisal. And I respect that – reality shifts over time, that’s a simple fact. Evolving opinions to reflect that reality, or just realizations that “I didn’t know enough” or even “I was wrong” are fine.

      I’d totally vote for someone who said “I was wrong”, so long as they explained why they originally did what they did, and why they changed. A flip-flopper, though, someone who just changes direction based on political winds? No respect for them.

  • Andrew Hall

    “Face it, if you entertain NO doubts about the fact that you’re right, that you’re good, it gives you enormous power in every moment of conflict. Whereas if even the thinnest edge of doubt creeps in, if you pause to ask yourself “Am I really right about this thing? Is this a good thing? What if I’m wrong?” … well, the pause itself is an easily-exploited weakness. Doubt erodes your confidence to advance, or even to hold your position and not lose ground.”

    I’m what’s considered a “weak” atheist, an agnostic atheist, someone who is a 6 on the 7 point Dawkins scale of belief. In other words, I understand that I can not know 100% that God does not exist. However, I have confidence in my doubt, and in the position that pragmatically speaking there is no God (the rejueection of the God hypothesis). When I discuss the issue of God the doubt is there, but does not interfere.

    • machintelligence

      It is rare to find any atheist who is a 7 out of 7 (even Dawkins claims to be a “tooth fairy” agnostic — God might exist, but has the same likelihood as the tooth fairy). Most of us are rational materialists who have seen no credible evidence for the supernatural.

    • Zugswang

      Well, there’s a difference between entertaining ideas that can potentially be demonstrated by evidence that exists, but has not yet been thoroughly analyzed, and considering those that have none (where the only rational conclusion is an agnostic one, but the only rational action, until new evidence is presented, is to assume the null).

  • jamessweet

    I know this somewhat goes against the spirit of this series, but as far as false-certainty-as-a-short-term-advantage, I have some thoughts on that: There is a quote I like that I took from Daniel Fincke, roughly, “I find it valuable to put my foot down today so that I have something definite to put in my mouth tomorrow.” There are many things I get out of that quote, but one of them is that there need not be a contradiction between taking a bold unapologetic position and defending it in the strongest possible terms vs. knowing you might turn out to be wrong. In fact, doing both is often the best possible approach. You have already outlined why it is important to always acknowledge one might be wrong; but this need not mean that we act like we might be wrong, especially when confronting those with false certainty. Particularly when it comes to the most important and crucial issues, it is often desirable to take a forceful and uncompromising stance, even if you aren’t entirely sure.

    And of course none of that should preclude oneself from deciding tomorrow that you were wrong after all :)

  • Mark Meuer

    Some comments from someone who does not agree with you (if that’s allowed here :-) ):

    There is a certain humor in your calling Ann Coulter a “vicious, smirking cow” immediately after expressing astonishment that conservative women don’t show more gratitude towards all that liberals have done for them. But that is just a side-note.

    The real reason I don’t find your piece very convincing is that it is largely a straw-man argument. You define (at least implicitly) conservatives as people who oppose any change at all on any thing. (“That darn Thomas Edison! As a conservative I oppose him trying a *second* material for the lightbulb since the first one didn’t work.”) You then go on to show that to be a foolish stance. Well, if that’s the definition of a conservative, then I agree conservatism is foolish. But no conservative would accept that definition. (I doubt any liberals would either, as that makes Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, to name a few, extremely liberal. They certainly didn’t accept the world as it was. They changed things!)

    You are spilling a lot of digital ink arguing against something no one is for. It may make you and your like-minded friends feel superior, but it accomplishes little else.

    I am not trying to put you down, but to respectfully respond to your opinion. May I suggest that you look at the things that astonish you about your political or philosophical opponents and, instead of assuming they’re all idiots, try to really understand *why* they think that way. A possible starting point for such an experiment might be, “Why are any intelligent, successful women conservative?” Until you can come up with answer other than, “They’re morons” or “They’re brainwashed” you haven’t really thought about it.

    Let’s try to talk *to* each other, not simply past each other.


    • Hank Fox

      Mark, disagreement is fine with me.

      In this case, the disagreement appears to hinge on my definition of the term “conservative” and yours of the term “liberal.”

      If the definition of “liberal” was simply “an advocate of change,” then yes, your suggestion that Hitler, Stalin and Mao could be considered liberals is probably apt. However, I don’t know of anyone, present or past, who would define it that way.

      The word is less about mere change and more about change in the direction of an increase in individual liberties and rights. In that case, Hitler, Stalin and Mao were polar opposites of liberalism. They were obviously fiercely opposed to equal rights, or any rights at all, for most individuals. (I’m not saying they were therefore conservatives; they were off on a different axis entirely.)

      As to the rest, certainly no conservative TODAY would want to agree that “conservatives” once opposed voting rights for women, fought against the 40-hour work week, or vigorously supported slavery.

      But they also don’t have a lock on the meaning of the word. I think we can believably say that as social history has moved on, the goal posts of conservatism have moved with them, so that no current-day conservative would vocally oppose women’s voting rights …

      (With the possible exception of that “vicious smirking cow” Ann Coulter: “If we took away women’s right to vote, we’d never have to worry about another Democrat president. It’s kind of a pipe dream, it’s a personal fantasy of mine, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”)

      … but they do feel entirely comfortable – here and now, today – opposing the rights of gays to marry, or to be members of the military, or to have the power to make end-of-life decisions for lifelong partners. Or even for certain children to win recognition as Eagle Scouts.

      These are, without doubt, CONSERVATIVE positions, and precisely the same sort of issue as voting rights for women, etc. — the issue of equal rights.

      I may not have been clear enough when I said …

      Because conservatism is, at its roots, “Things should stay just like they are.” Or at its worst, maybe even “Things should go back to the way they were.”

      … but I think the examples I gave were clear illustrations that I meant “stay just like they are” and “go back to the way they were” in terms of equal rights.

      Further, if self-admitted conservative Rick Perry’s recent video ad supporting the view of a “great again” specifically Christian America is any example, I think I can say that it’s conservatives who want religion more forcefully visible in politics, and in other areas of public life, including schools and courthouses, and probably even the military.

      Which is again an issue of equal rights, this time for non-Christians. Perry obviously wants to go back to a point where Christians enjoy more rights than non-Christians. To speak up in public, to have their children protected from Christian proselytizing at every public venue, to be free of constant paranoid hectoring that the birthright of Christians to own every discussion is being stolen every time someone argues for brief silence in public buildings such as schools and courthouses rather than the Christian placards, textbooks, monuments, invocations and demonstrations we would otherwise face.

      None of this is a straw-man argument. If you pay attention, you can see these things in the news almost daily.

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