Permission to be Wrong

If you’ve spent any time at all on the Internet, you’ve probably seen someone state information that is completely incorrect. They may or may not be stating this information with a degree of confidence. Perhaps it’s a comment on a YouTube video. Perhaps it is a blog post, like this one. How do you respond? What is your emotional journey when presented with something you know to be false?

Have you ever been wrong on the Internet? What was that experience like for you?

From what I have observed, the greatest sin on the Internet is to be wrong about something, or hold to an unpopular opinion. This is what I want to address today, sort of as an exercise in empathy.

Basic Ignorance and XKCD

Let’s start with basic ignorance, and Randall Monroe‘s take on it:

If you read much XKCD, you’ll find a genuine enthusiasm for learning things. The first step in learning is admitting that you don’t know a thing, that there is a void in your knowledge, and then the process of learning is what we do to fill that void.

I find that basic ignorance is relatively easy to forgive.

Just now, I described ignorance as a void in our knowledge. Sometimes, we can ignore that void. Other times, we bridge over it with assumptions. Let me give you an embarrassing example.

How the seasons work

I was deep into my 20’s before I learned that the seasons were opposite between the northern and southern hemispheres. I knew that the Earth was tilted on its axis, but I didn’t attribute the changing of the seasons to that tilt. Maybe I wasn’t taught that part in school, or maybe I wasn’t paying attention that day. I don’t know that I have an excuse.

I knew we had seasons, and I knew the Earth rotated around the sun, and that our orbit is somewhat elliptical. In my mind, it made sense that in the summer, that’s when the Earth is closest to the sun, so I assumed that the seasons were entirely driven by Earth’s proximity to our nearest star.

How was I corrected? I was talking with someone about writing a weather system for a game, and it grew into a very technical discussion on how to implement the system according to the tilt along a planet’s axis. My conversation partner was a genuine rocket scientist, and she was alarmed to discover how wrong I was on this subject.

She was alarmed, but she wasn’t cruel. She tried to correct me, and I provided some resistance at first, because my assumptions were deeply embedded. I wasn’t rude, and then I learned something, and I felt embarrassed.

Knowledge is knowledge, ignorance is ignorance

The example I just gave is a fairly harmless subject. We were literally just talking about the weather. I want to suggest the idea that the subject doesn’t matter when it comes to knowledge or ignorance. We have either learned something, or we haven’t, and that regardless of the subject, it is not a moral shortcoming.

A more harmful subject would be around homophobia. Some simple facts that homophobes do not know: homosexuality isn’t a choice, gay people have the same feelings as straight folk, exposure to literature that features homosexuality does not make a person gay. There are lots of facts a homophobe may not be aware of, actually, but that seems like a good list to start with.

Why am I choosing this particular topic? Because it is another one in which I was the ignorant asshole. Correcting that ignorance has had a profound impact on my life.

I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, and my parents were conservative. In my teens, I had a girlfriend that went to church, and then I started going and became a bit of a Bible thumper myself. The environment I grew up in wasn’t particularly cruel to gay people, but it was not kind or empathetic, either. No one sat down and had a conversation with me about homosexuality. The subject wasn’t brought up until I went to church, at which point, I was taught it was a sin.

During that time, using “gay” as a derogatory descriptor was not out of the question. It was in my vocabulary. And I didn’t really think about it.

Fast forward to early 1994. I had not met Melissa yet, and I was stationed at Holloman AFB, where “there is a beautiful woman behind every tree.” I was still feeling trauma after a painful breakup, and I was single and lonely. That’s when I found out my high school friend Nancy was going to school in Phoenix, which was just an easy 6 hour drive away. There had never been any kind of romantic attraction between Nancy and me, but you can bet I contemplated the possibilities during that long drive to go visit her.

We met and had a good time. We talked about High School, and cars, and what it was like for each of us escaping Oregon. Then, back at her apartment, she opened up to me. She trusted me enough to tell me about her girlfriend.

I didn’t blow up or yell at her, but I didn’t respond very well. I was not understanding or supportive. Honestly, I don’t remember what I told her. I probably regurgitated some garbage I’d picked up from church. I didn’t raise my voice, but I did make her cry.

That gave me another 6 hour drive to think about things, and I knew I’d somehow made a mistake. I hurt my friend. I didn’t mean to. But I hurt her, and to this day, I haven’t spoken to her since. I wish I could. I truly hope that she’s happy and free to be herself, the true self she was born to be.

Ignorance is forgivable, but actions have consequences

The consequences of my actions were that I lost a dear friend and have a weight of regret to carry in my heart for the rest of my days. What I did or said in ignorance was light by comparison to what we’ve seen bigots do in recent years.

I want to make it clear that it is okay to be wrong about something. The ignorance is forgivable. But you are still responsible for what you do in your ignorance. The ignorance itself is not an excuse to be cruel or do evil.

We are always responsible for our actions, no matter how ignorant we are while we’re doing them.

What to do when we find an ignorant person

For starters, try not to attack them.

I’ve given two examples of my own points of ignorance, and in neither case was I personally insulted or attacked for what I did not know. When you start with personal attacks, the other person’s mind closes. They stop listening. They are no longer capable of learning. All they can and will do is defend their position, regardless of how little standing they have.

Everyone has their pride. If you allow someone to hold onto their pride, they are more likely to retain the information they are given.

All too often, I see people get absolutely dog-piled for saying something stupid on the Internet. They get called names. They get insulted. They are torn down. They are given no room to retain any sort of composure. It’s like people want to make an example of them, and keep other ignorant people from speaking up.

My words here are not going to change the way people behave on the Internet. However, if you’re reading what I’m saying, and sometime in the future you find yourself presented with a person that is espousing something wildly inaccurate, please take a moment to consider why they might be so wrong, and what will happen if you attack them for their wrongness.

That’s probably all I have to say on this subject for now. Please be patient when you can. While I implore everyone to treat each other with a greater amount of kindness and empathy, I know that this is a big ask sometimes, and it’s okay to just ignore someone’s mistakes and ignorance, too. There are a lot of ignorant people on the Internet, and it is not your responsibility to correct everyone.