Sunday, November 4, 2012

On Being Wrong

One of our greatest quirks as human beings is our general response to being wrong.  Point out an error that we have made and our reaction is likely to be anything but a clear acknowledgement that, yes, indeed, we acted, spoke, behaved in a way that we shouldn't have.

Quickly, and at first, we might actually blush, might feel a bit of shame or embarrassment, but those feelings quickly pass and are replaced by some kind of defensiveness.  Perhaps even approaching resentment or anger.

It is possible that we are somehow wired this way; certainly, at least in this culture, we are socialized for it. And I'm not even talking about indiscretions or scandals that we might get caught up in.  Just think about doing a less than perfect job.  Imagine a president, for example, who tells the country that he mishandled a crisis in some way.  He would be crucified.  He would be pecked to pieces.  The assault on him would be relentless.  No, he must always project strength, and strength means never having to admit that you are wrong.

It is even possible to see this as a trait necessary to our survival, that genetic code I mentioned.  In the wild, weakness can mean death or captivity.  Neither those we are trying to protect nor those that we are trying to protect them from have any respect for or confidence in someone who has made a glaring, perhaps fatal, mistake.  Show your throat and someone or something will gladly gash it for you.

So what do we do?  We respond to criticism with criticism.  We fight fire with fire, or, to mix the metaphor, if the analysis of our wrongdoing is illuminated and analyzed for too long, we bring a gun to that knife fight and escalate the proportions of our mistake.  Or, like the good personal spin-doctors we are, we act proactively and try to cover up the error before it ever comes to light.  That last tendency, of course, is a one-sentence history of modern politics, the mistake that compounds the original mistake.

"Say it wasn't you" says the hip-hop song.  "Deny, deny, deny," says the political handler.

But, if denial of wrongdoing is either an instinct or a cultural necessity, what a mixed blessing that is.  For in trying to save ourselves, we instead doom ourselves to defensiveness.  And defensiveness leads to blindness.  It is far too easy for us to convince ourselves that the original mistake wasn't all that significant, or even, over time, that it didn't really happen, that those criticisms that we've conjured up to counter our accuser become the real problem, the replacement truth.  And then we're off the hook.

Still, I like to think that at the cores of our beings, we know when we have been wrong.  Maybe only when we're alone, in the dark or on a long car trip, do we take one of those wrongs out and examine it and press it like a bruise to see if it still hurts and then put it back in its hiding place securely.  And, yes, I like to think that there is still a slight soreness there, a reminder to try not to be that way again.

But I'm not sure.  The outside forces in life are very powerful.

Personally, I'll take it even one step further.  For I have a personal quirk.  It involves those times when I get accused of doing something wrong that I did not do.  Talk about your righteous indignation!  I tell myself that I am honest enough with myself that I know when I've done wrong and know the feelings of shame and embarrassment that come with that.  But charge me with crimes I didn't commit, and I'll capture the moral high ground faster than you can blink.  At least in my mind.

And then I'll shut down.  I'll retreat.  I'll avoid and move away and move on. I will no longer engage.  We will not debate the matter.  You will not have your say.  It's a rare chance in this life to say no more.  There are other people, other places.

Our modern world obsesses about trying to find out who made the mistakes whenever things don't turn out perfectly in a world that is in no way perfect.  I don't find that particularly amusing, even in an ironic way.  For example, Billy has mentioned how he has cooled towards football.  I, too, have cooled toward sports, mostly because a Saturday afternoon of watching football turns into a compiling of mistakes and things that went wrong and who is to blame for that.  And Saturday evening television and Sunday's newspapers and sports television for the rest of the week until the next game can't shake its focus from what went wrong.

And given the randomness of life, I believe there is not always a reason, at least not one that can be reduced to a particular person and what he or she should or shouldn't have done.  Maybe sometimes heads shouldn't have to roll.  Maybe sometimes the greatest fault is in being the fault-finder.


G. B. Miller said...

In my annoying little world (I work for a state guv'ment), you can actually not only get ahead if you admit to a screwup/being wrong, but you can earn a few brownie points as well.

My job is very high on telling the truth, no matter what the consequences may bring. This I can personally attest to.

So if you screw-up/make a major faux paux and tell the truth about it, you will eventually come out clean on the other end. May take a while, but you will.

Bob said...

Good to know, GB, and thanks for reading. I hope it's not like the coach's truth-telling when he "accepts full responsibility" in hopes of keeping the dogs at bay for awhile.

every little breath said...

Knowing when to admit wrongdoing and when to be proactive and deny is the key to making people love you - as a leader, yes, but also as an individual lad, out and about in the world. After all, most people can't resist a good ol' humble apology but they don't want it getting too ugly or gross or real. One must pick and choose wisely ;)