Admitting when you’re wrong is hard. This is an obvious statement but one that bears repeating and I don’t believe is pointed out enough. I have had and continue to have trouble admitting fault about even the most petty things. It is especially hard when you have to do so in public. But nonetheless, when you have made an error, a mistake, committed a sin you should admit it.
Before I go further I want to be absolutely clear that when I say “wrong”, I don’t mean merely beyond the bounds of the artificial barriers of civil discourse (political correctness) but when you’re genuinely incorrect about one thing or another. You should absolutely never apologise for having “incorrect” opinions about controversial issues.
The main barrier to admitting error seems to be pride. Whether true or not, admitting fault can be perceived as weakness or as losing in a war of words. I used to get into arguments on the Internet fairly frequently and I remember having a horrible fear of being “beaten”. I was able to abandon this mindset in my early 20s but I notice it remains common among adults of all ages. It is pride that does this and a large part is in the mind but unfortunately it is true that plenty of people see contrition of any kind as weakness.
Then there are the stubborn and the stupid. The Internet arguments I mentioned before often attracted half-wits who (in encounters I had), seemed totally unable to understand the arguments they were responding to. While not the details, I remember one person making the same assertions over and over in response to actual arguments against them. I agree with the observation that people generally are not able to understand arguments and respond far better to rhetoric. Even the most intelligent can get caught with this and I know I still do.
Then there are arguments about arguments. The logical fallacies people make when pointing out logical fallacies. Claiming someone is missing the point while missing what the point is or if there even was a point. Merely discussing the structure of an argument can result in face-palms and head shaking if not temporary insanity. The only real way to solve this and have an argument in the true sense of the term is when the people involved can be honest and so; admit fault.
The other difficulty (which is what I want to get to here), has less to do with the person’s pride or stubborn nature but to do with how people will use this. As mentioned before, many people view any kind of contrition whether warranted or not as weakness. You see this especially with politicians and the media. The media will leap of any act of contrition by a politician and use it against them so politicians and other public figures are made more reluctant to be honest about mistakes unless there’s no way out of it. This also results in politicians being considered liars which is true but a large part of this is because if they weren’t, they would be attacked out of office. I don’t excuse politicians for this, I’m just observing that this is the reality and that most humans will act this way. We are fallen creatures after all.
Politicians deserve some sympathy though as the people doing the attacking (journalists) are if anything, far more thin-skinned in general. Traditional journalists are vanishing at a faster rate than traditional media and what’s left and what’s new is not an improvement. Particularly with opinion journalism, you can have an influential public platform with little to no accountability. That is, if you can get a job. I’ve personally pointed out clear errors to journalists before that they’ve just ignored. When errors are clear they’re usually left to an anonymous editor who makes a correction at the bottom often days after. Cases where the correction goes at the top, in a subsequent publication – or gets pulled altogether are far less common from my observations.
So you have a situation where people who criticise the mistakes of others, won’t admit their own, and make the people they criticise even less likely to admit theirs.
So contrary to much of society, admitting error or fault has become something that proves the credibility of public figures in particular and I will quickly lose interest in those that don’t admit when they’re wrong. This eliminates huge numbers of journalists, politicians and public figures from respectability in my eyes. I can think of a number who I won’t name that I stopped reading or listening to regularly once they’d failed this test when it came up. This includes people I agree with generally on but it’s best to hold your own even more accountable. Before I was consciously doing this, I was also put off by certain talking heads for the same reasons.
Now if anyone reading this knows what I’ve written before, they might point out that I have written positively of Donald Trump. The Donald (I just realised people aren’t calling him this as often now), certainly is a a good example of someone who won’t admit when they’re wrong. I would add some qualifications to this though. The first, is that a lot of what he is wrong about is just “wrong” as in politically incorrect. So I simply don’t care and you shouldn’t either. The second (which will sound slippery after all that I’ve written), is that a lot of the things he is genuinely wrong about are pretty minor misstatements. Some seem also to have been deliberately done for free media coverage; something at which Trump has long being a master. The last and most important is that while I do support Donald Trump, it is the same way I support a fire in an abortion clinic. I probably wouldn’t start it but I certainly wouldn’t put it out. Trump is just using the tactics of the media and political class against them and I support him if only for that. I don’t have any real hopes that he’ll restore what was destroyed; just that he’ll pave the way for rebuilding.
So wrong, incorrect, mistaken, sinful, I’ve used many words but I think my point is clear. I’m not a public figure and I’m not accountable the way they are but I still endeavour to admit fault forthrightly. And despite the added pressure, I think public figures are under more obligation to do so.
Just before I finished writing this I happened to read this about Emperor Theodosius seeking penitence from Saint Ambrose:
“This image–of the Imperial Augustus, master of all the legions, ruler of the entire Roman Empire, bowing before an unarmed cleric of the Catholic Church–is surely one of the most shocking in the history of Rome. It shows not only the triumph of the Catholic Church, but the first, most dramatic instance of its supremacy over a king, with the laws of God, executed by his apostolic bishops, being the ultimate restraint on the fiery, tempestuous acts of Christian princes.”
If an Emperor can do it…