Of pocket lint and ‘political correctness’

Of pocket lint and ‘political correctness’ February 26, 2015

My phone wasn’t charging properly and it was gradually getting worse. At first I thought it was the cheapo charging cord I was using, but then I started to think it was a problem with the phone itself.

For a while, I could recharge the phone by rigging a rubber band that kept the cord snugly docked into the phone, but even that stopped working and it got to the point where the phone only charged if I was physically holding it — actively shoving the cord into its little dock, which was not an optimal arrangement. So the other day I finally bit the bullet and took the phone and went to the Verizon store in the hopes of getting it fixed or rebuilt or replaced, whichever turned out to be necessary.

Screen shot 2015-02-26 at 6.53.21 PMThis was worrisome. I was fretting about warranties and upgrade schedules and what all of this might wind up costing. I was mentally juggling our various bills and expenses and debts, trying to estimate which ones I could maybe cut back on or delay in order to get my phone back in working order. So I was pretty stressed about the situation when I walked up to the counter at the Verizon store.

But then Brad, the Verizon guy, pulled out a paper clip and squinted into the little charging dock on my phone. He probed around in there for a second with the end of the paper clip and pulled out a BB-sized ball of pocket lint. And then another.

“That ought to do it,” he said, plugging my phone into a charger behind the counter.

Boop,” said the phone, happily charging itself like the day it came out of the box.

I was equal parts relieved and mortified. I was relieved because this wasn’t going to cost me anything — no money, no time. The problem had been quickly and easily solved. For free.

But I was also embarrassed because I had allowed myself to be inconvenienced and bothered and worried for weeks over nothing more than pocket lint. What I had feared was some potentially large problem turned out to be something easily resolved with a paper clip. Seeing how simple and obvious the solution was made me feel kind of stupid because I had been kind of stupid.

That has happened before. And it will happen again.

There are two morals to this story.

First, of course, is that the charging dock on a cellphone can get clogged with pocket lint. If yours starts to get a bit unreliable, shine a flashlight in there and poke around a bit — gently — with a toothpick or the end of a paper clip. That should take care of that for you. Good to know.

The second lesson here is just as practical, but it has wider implications. The second lesson here is that briefly feeling kind of stupid can be a Good Thing. It means there’s a solution that you hadn’t seen before — maybe even a quick, easy, obvious and no-cost solution. And briefly feeling a bit stupid — owning up to the fact that there was something simple you had overlooked or failed to think of — is a small price to pay for the relief that comes from no longer having to worry about problems that turn out to be easily solved.

There’s a perverse impulse to get defensive when confronted with anything that might make us feel embarrassed or force us to admit that we maybe did something foolish or unthinking. And that defensiveness can lead us to resent or to reject the simple advice that can free us from what may turn out to be wholly avoidable and easily resolvable problems.

It was kind of stupid of me to jump to the conclusion that my phone was broken in some expensive way. But it would have been far more stupid to stubbornly cling to that conclusion, refusing to believe that Brad knew more than I did and refusing to let him help me by not just solving my problem but showing me how to avoid it in the future.

Many of us want to avoid ever feeling stupid, ever admitting there was something obvious we overlooked, or admitting that others know things we don’t know. But such minor embarrassments are an unavoidable part of what it means to be human. Sometimes our oversights inconvenience ourselves and burden us with silly stress. Sometimes those oversights burden others with harms and offenses that are no less harmful or offensive for being unintentional.

I suppose if I were perfect then I would never need to worry about fessing up to having done something stupid, having overlooked something obvious, having not known everything that somebody else might have known. But I’m not perfect. And trying to convince myself or others that I am wouldn’t actually spare me from occasional stupidities, oversights and offenses. It would only prevent me from correcting them.

Every few months we see an Internet flurry prompted by someone — Jonathan Chait, Freddie DeBoer — complaining about the “political correctness” of their online critics. These complaints are an expression of the pretense of perfection. They’re based on the idea that any of us would somehow be capable of writing or speaking in public for years without, somewhere along the way, saying something dumb or thoughtless or hurtful. They’re embarrassed by their embarrassment, and so they lash back at the critics who called them out in the hopes that this will allow them to maintain the illusion of unwavering perfection and omniscience.

That doesn’t work. Whining about supposed “political correctness” is just a way of refusing to listen and refusing to learn. It’s a way of turning some minor stupidity into a major stupidity, doubling down.

Brad the Verizon Guy was very kind. He was polite and generously reassuring, and that made my embarrassment easier to overcome. But really it shouldn’t matter. My embarrassment wasn’t the actual problem. I didn’t go to the Verizon store to have my feelings tended, I went there to get my phone fixed. And he showed me how to fix it.

That’s all that matters. If he had been a total jerk — if he had announced in a loud voice, “Hey, everybody, check out this moron. He thinks his phone is broken but he didn’t even bother to check for lint in charging dock!” — that still wouldn’t change the fundamental fact that he was showing me how to solve my problem.

And when someone tells you how to solve your problem, it would be stupid not to listen.


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