An Open Letter About the Making of Mistakes

I’m always afraid of screwing up. Seriously.

That’s especially true when I’m online, because sometimes online reactions can be extreme. One little mistake, and you’re suddenly The Enemy.

I once got on the wrong side of a group of women on a feminist website, and … damn, it got nasty. Some of the nice ladies actually followed me to the comment sections of other websites to point out what a viciously sexist woman-hater I was.

I’ve made disparaging comments about tattooing, and oh boy, you do not want to rile up the tattoo-lovers. “You’re judging people by their appearance! You’re just like every other prejudiced bigot! You HATE people who have every right to express themselves, because you’re EEEEVILLLL!”

I’ve screwed up plenty of times in real life. For instance, I’ve made friendly jokes to people who were not yet friends – Example: Meeting a young man for the first time, the friend of a friend, I pop off with the jocular “Everybody calls you ‘Country’ huh? What do they call you for short?” – and made instant enemies. But that’s sort of self-limiting. Out in the real world, unless they marry into your family or work in the next cubicle at your office, it’s fairly easy to never speak to or see someone again. If they won’t accept an apology, you cut your losses and move on.

But online reactions … because they’re crowd-sourced, those are sometimes hard to get away from. And they can be especially unfriendly.

When you become The Enemy online, you aren’t just a garden variety “somebody I dislike.” No, you’re bug-sucking baby-raping butt-rot kitten-killing nuclear waste Hitler!!!

You’ve seen it. And haven’t you been just a little bit bothered that even the people with whom you agree can be so pure spitting crazy mean?

It’s that barking-from-the-porch thing that makes road rage possible. Whereas you’d be careful about flipping off a biker with your tender flesh within his arm’s reach, you’re more inclined to do it when safely strapped into a protective cocoon of glass and steel, moving down the highway at 70 miles an hour.

Online, it’s worse. In this digital arena where we’re often protected even from identification, much less location or in-the-flesh interaction, we feel very, very safe. So safe that that little meanness at the core of some (many?) of us, the meanness that wants revenge for all the slights and stings we have suffered all our lives … sees a chance to get out and do some score-settling.

To my shame, I have been on both sides of it. I have seen the Black Beast, and I have been the Black Beast.

Thinking about it right now – Gah! – I’m disturbed to realize that I’m not 100 percent sure I won’t suffer a weak, self-involved moment and do it again.

Because I’m little, and nerdy, I have suffered plenty of slings and arrows. Because I’m bright, and wordy, I’m very, very good at slinging back. And damn is it ever tempting to thump some of the assholes online. Plus, the Beast says in its defense: You’re not actually hurting them. It’s just words.

But when the Black Beast gets in the driver’s seat … you come out of it feeling dirty. Feeling less human than when you started. In fact, so it seems to me, both sides come out worse.

So I’m afraid of screwing up both ways: I’m afraid of screwing up and offending people. But I’m also afraid of screwing up and mercilessly flaming those people who offend me.

I’m afraid of seeing the Beast. I’m afraid of being the Beast.

Don’t think anything I’m saying here excuses those dimwitted vicious asses who so richly deserve public lambasting for the things they do. There really are some evil people among us, and some of them, well … their willingness to harm others knows no bounds, and suffers no pang of conscience. (I’m thinking of you, Dick Cheney, you creepy, lousy, genocidal, war-profiteering, face-shooting, gutless little draft-dodging cock-su … Oops.)

But not everyone is one of those people. Not every mistake – not even the ones that are sort of deliberate – merits a flame attack. And besides, some of the people making the mistakes are OUR people. People on our side.

But sadly, the Beast is always in here with us, waiting to pounce.

So yes, I am very afraid of screwing up.

But I still do it.

Hey, sometimes I even do it as a reaction to the fear of doing it.

Because I know something about fear, and what it does to you: I was talking to a young coworker about adventures not long back, things I’d done such as parasailing, or parachuting, or riding the mule down the narrow trails into the Grand Canyon.

I can barely even describe the mule ride. Much of it, one of your legs is dangling over a drop that might be 700 feet or more – one mistake by your mule, one bee sting, and you’d be able to scream your lungs empty 2 or 3 times before you hit the rocks below. You’d be terrified and conscious the whole way.

Parasailing scared me stiff. I was petrified for the first 3 minutes or so, so scared I couldn’t even look up at my chute, which I wanted to do, to see that it was okay. At first, I couldn’t even look out at the scenery. And on that one, I was only about 200 feet high.

Parachuting: You take off in this plane that has this huge HOLE in it, and when your jumpmaster give you the signal, you have to climb out that hole onto a tiny little step. Thousands of feet high. And then he slaps you on the shoulder and shouts “Go!” and you let go. The plane soars away from you, and you’re confused and disoriented and FALLING, there are random jerks and shudders and squeezes, and suddenly you’re hanging in the sky with nothing under you, alive only because of this contraption overhead, skinny nylon strings and fucking CLOTH.

I try to be as honest as possible, even about how much things scare me, and as I was relating this, this macho young man challenged me with “If all this stuff scares you so much, why do you do it?”

I fumbled with the answer, but it was the right one. “You can’t just … not do stuff.”

You can’t live totally inside the bounds of fear. You have to go out on the edge. Have to. You have to dare the edge, even if only a little bit.

This is especially important in your larger social matrix. I’ll tell you why:

You’re this individual. But you live in a herd. The herd has its rules, millions of them. And all of those rules are continuously imposed on you, gently or firmly, by the people around you.

The thing is, if you listen to everybody, and do what THEY think is the right thing to do, you cease to exist as an individual. Mercilessly molded by the opinions and demands of all those others, you turn into this squeezed-in little … object.

You cannot be an individual and be quiet and good and “polite” all the time. Because the rules are not made with your individual self in mind, you MUST ruffle feathers, commit faux pas, insult people, make mistakes. Sometimes.

If the people around you find nothing wrong with you, THAT is what is wrong with you. You’re not taking enough chances. Not growing or existing as your own self. (Also, if you really think about it, the most successful people around you regularly piss people off. They don’t work at it, but they also don’t fear it. Not like you and I do, anyway.)

So, yes, I’m going to screw up. I’m going to do some things you don’t like. Sometimes it’s even going to be deliberate.

But I’ll make a deal with you. With all of you, with the entire Internet.

The deal is: I’ll give you my promise to do the best I can. But in return I’ll expect something from YOU.

So here’s what I promise:

1) I promise to screw up.

Oh yeah, I’m going to do it, and we both know it. I’m going to do it often. Sometimes it’s even going to be the result of deliberation.

But when I DO screw up, and someone points it out to me, and explains why or how I’m screwing up (I can’t read your mind, but also, it has to be a legitimate collar) …

2) I promise to listen, and even to accept that you might be right.

3) I promise to think, really THINK about it. I promise to try to understand your point.

4) If it turns out that I’m wrong – and my experience of me is that I really am willing to admit that (oh, man, there’s shit I look back on and cringe … and I’m not talking about stuff I did when I was 15; I’m talking about last week) – I promise to try to change, to learn better.


5) I promise to try not to do it again. (Operative word: “try.”)

I’m not going to agree with everything everybody says about what I’m doing wrong. Partly because I’m me, this individual, and I won’t agree with others on some things. Maybe not ever. But partly because, as my experience as an atheist teaches, one man really can be right and the whole world wrong. And I have been right a few times.

But I’ll listen, and think, and even, if necessary, change.

In return, here’s what I expect from YOU.

1) Don’t expect impossible perfection from me.

Half the time when I was younger, I felt like I was dropped here among you Earth aliens by my real people, as an experiment to see how well one of us could get along with you. (The result: We can blend in as long as we control our tendency to react to your jaw-dropping freakiness.) I still feel like the odd man out fairly often.

2) Be gentle with me.

I’m not a mule you can beat, or a barn you can throw rocks at. My skin is as tender as yours. Even in my mistakes, I deserve respect and fair treatment.

Be assured that if you whack at me, call me names, and if I respect you enough to care about what you’re saying, it will hurt my feelings. The result of which, inevitably, is that I will tend to shut you out. At which time the conversation, if that’s what you were expecting, is over.

I will also think less of you. Not because you’re right and I’m wrong and that leaves me feeling uncomfortable. But because the deep me, who knows he can be wrong but also knows he has the right to be given some leeway to change course and be right again, knows you have over-reacted.

3) If I make ONE mistake, don’t treat me as a TOTAL enemy.

If you and I agree on 99 out of a hundred things, and one day I either screw up or simply come to a different conclusion than you, and we suddenly disagree on something, don’t treat me as if I’m a consciously malignant hater of all things good. I come to conclusions about things because I think about them, not because I swallow the ready-made conclusions of others.

It may be that I’ve expressed myself poorly. It may be that you’re misunderstanding me, or we’re misunderstanding each other. And it may be that YOU are the one who’s wrong. Don’t automatically draw a line and put me on the other side of it with people we both hate (you know — racists … sexists … Nazis … Republicans).

4) Give me time.

It may just be that it’s just taking me a bit to come around to your right way of thinking. Sometimes changing course takes time.

Let me repeat that: Sometimes changing course takes time.

I talked a non-committal sort-of-agnostic friend around to full atheism a few years back. This was a guy who had been hovering around the fringes of it, meanwhile sending his son to a Christian Sunday school to “learn about morality.” It took a while — something like a year of friendly bull sessions. He was there with me in spirit, but it took a bit of discussion and time for him to rearrange the things in his head.

As for me, I’ve changed my opinions on a number of things. I’m even capable (on admittedly rare occasions) of changing my opinion instantaneously, if I’m shown to be wrong – sometimes even by someone I don’t like. I truly believe it doesn’t matter who says a thing as to whether it’s correct or true or not. It’s not who’s right, but what’s right.

But most of the time, for most of us, it takes a while. You can’t just tear out the roots and foundations of the beliefs and conclusions already in your head and reshape or replace them overnight. Even I often have to work at it for a while before I get there.

Besides which, a certain amount of the stuff was installed in my head by others, way before I was a self-responsible conscious entity. Not everything inside me is ME. And who the hell gets the time to examine all that stuff, and replace it?

5) If I’m wrong and I fix it, you have to forgive me. Completely.

It’s not unknown for the families of murder victims to forgive the killer. I can’t see it myself, but if they say they do, I can only take it as stated. But if the families of murder victims can forgive, I’d say there is very little that is unforgivable.

Genocide is unforgivable. Starting the Iraq War is, to me, unforgivable. Killing things or causing agony because you don’t care enough – say using Navy sonar that we KNOW destroys the hearing of whales and dolphins – is unforgivable. Forcing me to listen to hip-hop music — unforgiveable.

Other than that, most things are forgivable. To me, when you make a mistake and then you fix it, you don’t come out of it forever after as the still-suspect “guy who made the mistake.” You come out of it as “that guy who improved himself.” The guy who is better today than he was yesterday. The guy who is still One of Us.


6) Keep the goal in mind. If the whole game is about YOU hitting homeruns, with me standing in for the ball, say goodbye to teamwork.

All of this – atheism, the larger social goals associated with it – is not about me winning, or you winning. It’s about this destination. You know, the better world we all say we want?

You can leap on me and triumphantly smash me into the dirt, and I can know I’ve been soundly beaten. After which, fuck that team spirit stuff, because neither of us is going to be fit to be part of any team. You’re going to be distracted by the cheering spectacle of you in all your glory, I’m going to be distracted by the anger of humiliation.

So …

That’s it. That’s the deal. Take it or leave it, because it’s the best I can do.

Oh, one last thing:

I’ve phrased all this as if I’m speaking solely about me. But I’m not. I’m talking about everybody. All of you, maybe even all of THEM — you know, our fellow humans down in this pit together, trying to figure things out?

Yeah, US.

Looking Past the Bright Sun of Crazy
Thoughts on “Privilege”
Race and Culture Again: Bessie and Lois
Beta Culture: Seeing The Brackets
  • Rabidtreeweasel

    I … agree. I think. I feel like I might disagree with an inferred point regarding the over arching picture, and that is regarding the redemption of most/some/the most vocal denizens of The. Pit. I agree that if someone makes a genuine mistake or an honest inquiry that should be responded to respectfully. I see that occasionally from people new to the discussions I’m involved in. That’s fine. Seeking knowledge is great. But those who claim who want to know, who then refuse to look at the evidence offered (which I think was promise number two? To give the argument presented credence and do due diligence) then that person isn’t interested in the conversation or personal growth.

    That is what I see the most, and ut is exhausting. That’s why what you said is refreshing, because many people (including other skeptics; distressing!)I don’t treat disagreements that way and do not take it well when their flaws are pointed out. I think this is part of the escalation. Those of us who are just so tired of having the said.e conversations meet genuine questions with incredulit

    • Hank Fox

      ” … the redemption of most/some/the most vocal denizens of The. Pit.”

      Oh, no. The ones who are salesmen, WARRIORS for wrongness, you can’t do anything but oppose THEM. Otherwise they’d kill and eat us all.

      I might also point out that they are the reason we end up flaming each other. They create a social context in which rage is appropriate. We’re not allowed to kill them, so we just have to live with the anger, while they sleep well at night and (some of them) get rich.

      • Za-zen

        See this. This is what’s wrong. We atheists do not want or need your religion, that does not make us warriors of evil.

        We do not need saved, nor do we need redemtion, we are quite happy being free of dogma, and would ask each and every one of you to examine your belief system and if you are incapable of doing so and require it to lead a happy life, then fine. But do not impose your beliefs upon us, do not attempt to legislate us into your theocracy, and keep your sacred cows away from us and critical discourse, or they will gett the due slaughtering they deserve.

        Many thanks for the polite conversation.

    • Rabidtreeweasel

      Wow. That was terrible! I meant to say “met with incredulity and impatience. At that point I leave the conversation because I see it going downhill and don’t want to lose it.”

  • Chrissetti

    Wonderful post, it’s too easy to fall into a petty ally v enemy scenario when it’s going to cause far more harm than good. I’m sure we’ve all done it.

  • Andrew Hall

    I have a few principles I try to follow online.

    1. Don’t say anything I wouldn’t want broadcasted on Youtube.

    2. Don’t be an internet tough guy — i.e. saying something that I wouldn’t have the balls to say to someone in person.

    3. Apologize when necessary, even when I don’t mean it. This strategy has kept me married for 17 years.

    4. Be funny. People are far less likely to burn you in effigy if you can make them smile.

  • corybrunson

    Your promises seem adequate and your expectations seem reasonable. In fact, the words are such good choices that i wonder how conscious you were of them. What i come across occasionally from people who’ve received smack-downs takes a subtly different form: It’s not promises and expectations but promises and caveats. They feel justified in letting a lazy idea grow mould if they don’t receive even-tempered explanations for it (and even sometimes when they do, if they also receive denigration). And it’s the sense of entitlement that gets me. We should want to be right, whether or not we like the people disagreeing with us — or whether we think they deserve any kind of personal response.

    . . . and there are still high expectations to be had.

    . . . though what i still see pretty regularly is a kind of immature younger brother to your case, in which one’s expectations are of the form “Congratulate me on caring before explaining how i’m wrong” or “Don’t use terms like ‘sexist’ when you criticize what i say”.

    . . . so, sure. Agreed. Just beware your expectations being echoed farther than your promises. : )

    • Cornelioid

      . . . and i fail at Sign In. Go me.

  • JustKat

    Nice post!

    It also seems to me that when someone expresses an idea and is flamed for it that a lot of the time – an AWFUL lot of the time – the person with the ‘flammable idea’ defends the bad idea instead of admitting that they were wrong, or just admitting that they just never “thought about it that way”.

    What is it about the internet that brings that out in people?

    Additionally, those who tend to flame – why is it necessary to point another person’s flaws/mistakes out with such venom? Why not just say “I disagree because_________” and go on to have meaningful discussion?

  • geocatherder

    The short version of this, I think, is: I will behave on the internet like I behave in real life. If more people did that, the ‘net would be a far more pleasant place…

  • silomowbray

    THANK YOU, Hank. About five years ago I was virtually eviscerated by an online “community” for making a very poor choice, one that I fully admit was idiotic. Even after offering an unconditional apology and doing what needed doing to fix things, the online disembowelings continued. After a while I got the sense that there was a borderline sadistic enjoyment in the (by this time overblown) outrage directed at me. As if people felt good to castigate a Judas among them, perhaps even making them feel virtuous.

    Since then, I find I participate in online communities at a rate roughly around 1/10th of what I used to.

    • ‘Tis Himself

      This sort of thing happens all too often. However, there are a couple of caveats. I’m using the above post as examples. I am NOT accusing silomowbray of doing these things:

      …after offering an unconditional apology…

      “I’m sorry if I got you upset” is not an unconditional apology. That “if” is a condition. An unconditional apology is “I’m sorry that I made you upset.”

      …doing what needed doing to fix things…

      Quite often what needs to be done is to just shut up. Justifying yourself, claims that the readers misunderstand you, and restatements of the original comments very rarely fix things to anyone’s satisfaction.

      After a while I got the sense that there was a borderline sadistic enjoyment in the (by this time overblown) outrage directed at me.

      There are those who keep beating a horse long after it’s dead. However if you keep posting about the original topic then don’t be surprised if people keep responding to you and tempers escalate. As said before, sometimes you should just shut up and disappear from the discussion.

      If you’re going to leave either the particular discussion or the site, just leave. A “farewell cruel world, I’m off to join the circus” departing post is not going to win you any sympathy. At one website* declaring a flounce and later returning will get you permanently banned. If you leave unannounced and return an hour, a day or a week later, your return will not be held against you. However if you flounce and then unflounce you’ll lose style points for not sticking the flounce.

      Don’t tone troll. If somebody is rude to you, don’t complain about their rudeness. It just makes you look like a whiner and gives people the impression that you can’t answer arguments so you’re going to attack how something was said rather than what was said. Also it is easy to be rude without using naughty language. Quote mining, logical fallacies, and mischaracterizing someone’s position are all rude.


  • Ralph Day

    “The short version of this, I think, is: I will behave on the internet like I behave in real life. If more people did that, the ‘net would be a far more pleasant place…”

    Assuming that in “real life” you’re a pleasant individual. If I met half the people in real life I’ve met on the internet I’d be in jail for multiple assualts!

    True though, the annomity of usernames gives people licence to be assholes.

  • Ralph Day

    annonimity of usernames…doh!

  • Brad

    You might consider changing draft dodging to chickenhawking. Draft dodging is an honorable thing, because the draft and slave armies are crazy unethical. Chickenhawks, on the other hand, are hypocrites and coward who should have no say in military action.

  • sw

    Love this post. That is all.

  • machintelligence

    Nice post. It gave me additional things to think about as I have been commenting more lately and have been made to realize that irony/sarcasm is not always obvious in written comments. Do you think most people would recognize */sarcasm* at the end of a comment?

    • StevoR

      That’s why emoticons aka “smileys” can be good.

  • Jamie

    Sensational post Hank – both on AND off the internet.

  • A Hermit

    This should be turned into something like a EULA that you have to agree to before using the internets…”by clicking here you agree to behave like a decent human being…”

  • StevoR

    Well said,Hank Fox & cheers!

    Seconded by me.

  • F

    Been there, done that. Well said. You’re a lovely man, Hank Fox.

  • hbart

    “It’s that barking-from-the-porch thing that makes road rage possible. Whereas you’d be careful about flipping off a biker with your tender flesh within his arm’s reach, you’re more inclined to do it when safely strapped into a protective cocoon of glass and steel, moving down the highway at 70 miles an hour.”

    This reminded me of your fellow Texan Robert E. Howard’s words:

    “Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.”

    Also, ‘barking from the porch’ will now be entered into my vocabulary. You have a smashing knack for turning a phrase, Hank.

  • Pingback: Blue Collar Atheist on Making Mistakes « SkepDirt()

  • scottgibbons

    I normally just lurk in here, but had to log in and add a hearty well done sir!

  • Chagrined

    This was one of the most wise and insightful blog posts I’ve ever read. ‘barking from the porch’ – now that’s the kind of plain spoken idiom the hillbillies from where I grew up would spin.

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