Being Wrong, Part 4: How is it that sometimes we choose the wrong answer?
Being Wrong: Part Six

Being Wrong: Part 5

That sure was a long seven days since I last posted an entry on this topic of being wrong! That delay occurred despite my best intentions to do what I said that I was going to do. It has been difficult for me to finish this piece. My goal is to make a point but I want to make the point in a particular way. I want to make a point about us all as humans and about our human nature. I am not saying that I am somehow free from being wrong as I am not. That is part of the point too.

I was inspired to write on the subject of being wrong by several things. They are as follows: the book: Being Wrong, Adventures in the Margin of Error, my reading of numerous blogs and discussion groups on the experience of family estrangement, my personal experience with being wrong, and my observations of events in the lives and relationships of friends and acquaintances and in my own life.

Before this morning I hadn't described to my husband my difficulties with writing on this topic. This morning I told him about my wish to finish writing this piece and what it was that I want to accomplish. I think that I did a good job of explaining it to him within about five or ten minutes. Unfortunately I didn't record myself doing that as it would have helped me duplicate it here! But I will try to do it again now. I guess the best approach is the direct one which is what I did when talking this morning. I've already started that approach in the first paragraph in listing the things that have inspired me to write about Being Wrong.

First in the list is that book: Being Wrong. I know that my mention of that book and its impact on me is not going to cause those who read my blog to go out and buy that book and read it. Even if you did, perhaps it would not affect you the same way that it affected me. You might hate reading it. I don't know. But whether you read it or not is not important. What is important to me is that I somehow convey what I learned from reading that book and how what I learned is connected to how we relate or don't relate to others in our lives.

I mentioned the results of the Asch line experiment in my previous post. In that experiment people chose the incorrect answer more often to a question about which was the shortest line when they were in the presence of others who gave the wrong answer.

Other stories in the book about people being wrong astonished me. They included a man who was paralyzed who believed that he could move, a woman who was blind who believed that she could see, a woman who was raped who identified the wrong man as the attacker, C.P. Ellis who transformed himself from being an Exalted Cyclops of the KKK to being an activist against racism, a young woman who broke away from the evangelistic religion in which she was raised, and the Millerites who suffered the Great Disappointment when the world did not come to an end on October 22, 1844. There were many more stories on being wrong as well.

I was particularly impressed with the ability of the persons who were blind or paralyzed to believe that their conditions do not exist. How clear is it to us whether we can see or move? How is it possible that someone who can't see or move can deny that fact? If we can deny facts as clear at being unable to see or move, is there anything that we can't deny? Are we capable of believing anything at all, no matter how mind bendingly incorrect? If we are capable of that much self delusion, how can we be sure of what is truth and what is false?

Second in my list of inspirations to write on this topic are the blogs and discussion groups that I read. There are very strong viewpoints expressed about parents by adult kids who have estranged them. There are equally strong viewpoints expressed about adult kids by parents. Most of the posters are strangers to each other and have had no personal face to face experience with each other. This does not impede the flow of opinions stated as fact that people make about the people in each others' lives. I am not being critical here. I am stating what occurs. I also can say from experience that it is comforting to feel validation and to hear from others who express empathy for our own feelings.

When I read blogs, I often wonder about the back stories. I have experienced estrangements in my family from both sides and have experienced estrangements from people whom I once called friends. Thus when I read posts written by a person who is an angry son or daughter or mother or father or sibling of someone whom they describe as a pathological narcissist or a sociopath or an alcoholic or a drug addict or worse, I am aware of the fact that every word that I am reading could well be the absolute truth and that the poster deserves every ounce of empathy and support that they are given. Since I have had members of my own family who were out of control and abusive, I can relate.

However I also am aware that not everyone who was present to experience something tells the story the same way.

I have a good friend whom I will call Carol. No names used in this post are real names except those that are from the book by Kathryn Schulz.

It would be hard to find a kinder more compassionate caring person than Carol. She is capable of great insight. She is smart. She likes to travel and do interesting things. She has several kids, all grown. One of Carol's daughters had a boyfriend whom I will call Tim. They met in high school. Carol loved Tim. She felt very close to him. A number of years after high school Carol's daughter and Tim married with everyone's blessings. All was well for some time. Then Tim took a dislike to Carol. It was as though my friend had turned into the devil as far as Tim was concerned. Things got so bad that Carol, her husband, her daughter and Tim saw a therapist together to try to sort things out. That didn't resolve anything. No one except Tim could see why he saw Carol as so awful. No one could change Tim's mind about Carol. Tim didn't have any explanation for it that made sense to anyone. He had developed a visceral dislike for Carol. His dislike of Carol is not shared by anyone else that I have heard of. She is a person who is well loved by many. It is not an illusion that she creates. She is quite loveable.

After the therapy sessions were over, Tim continued to view Carol through a very dark filter of negative feelings. Carol became estranged from them when she decided to accept that she could do nothing to change Tim's feelings. Carol respected the relationship that her daughter had with Tim and she felt that it was important that her daughter honor her marriage above all else, including her relationship with Carol. Carol did not want to be a factor in any problem between her and Tim.

For a long time she felt great sadness over the loss of the relationships with both her daughter and Tim. But life went on. The abbreviated version of the rest of the story is that Tim divorced Carol's daughter who reconciled with her parents some time later. They have not had any deep discussion about what occurred. Carol's daughter is quite a private person and Carol does not push.

I feel sure that if Tim posted on discussion boards that his description of Carol would be of someone quite different from the person that I know. If Tim posted on discussion boards, I am sure that he would have received support from most on the board in his reasons for disliking Carol. I feel sure that many would have had no compunctions in attributing any number of negative things to Carol based solely on their belief in the accuracy of Tim's description of Carol. Chances are that they would feel good about themselves and that they were doing a good thing, supporting someone whom they thought had been treated badly by Carol.

Another example of a surprising reaction to  someone who didn't do anything to merit it that I could see was one that I saw occur online. A woman wrote a post for the first time on a board that was primarily used by adults who were angry at and/or estranged from their parents. The woman related her story of having had a long term chronic illness and having raised her only child pretty much alone. She talked about her confusion and deep grief over being estranged from her child. The reaction of those who had been regulars on the board was to attack her, attributing all sorts of negative qualities to her and comparing her to the people that they had issues with in their own lives. I could see no rational good reason for what they were doing.

If she had described herself as an adult child with a long term chronic illness experiencing grief and confusion over being estranged by her parents, their response would have been much different. The woman stopped posting there. I would describe the subsequent posts there about what occurred as being the online equivalent of them patting themselves on the back.

In the situation with Carol and Tim, I believe that Tim was wrong about Carol because I have met Carol and I believe that I know her pretty well. I am impressed with her ability not to feel really angry at Tim and to remember positive things about Tim. She has not let Tim's dislike of her change her own good memories of Tim.

In the situation with the online group discussing parents, I didn't  know that woman nor did any of the posters there. Maybe the posters there could be right about her and she was all of what they said and more? But how did they know that? Perhaps it is a limitation on my part that I didn't see what they saw in her posts. I am puzzled by the instant negative reaction to her based on what? The fact that she chose to post about her loss on that board? I think that she was wrong about something though. It was a mistake to expect anything different on that board.

Is it at all possible that good people can be abusive while thinking that they are doing a good thing? Yes, it's possible. I think it happens all the time. I don't think that most people attack chronically ill griefstricken mothers because they want to abuse the person. I don't think they see themselves as doing anything abusive at all. I think they believe that they are doing something really good, protecting someone, waving the flag of victory for someone, doing their good deed for the day. I am sure that they don't think of themselves as kicking someone when they're down or of being unfair or mean or cruel.

I am going back now to examples in the book Being Wrong. The woman who identified a man as the one who raped her believed that she had identified the man who did the crime. It was many years later when she realized that she had identified the wrong man. Can you imagine how she felt?

Are you familiar with how things were in the early 1950's when Joseph McCarthy was looking for a Commie under every bed? Actors were blacklisted from appearing in movies due to the suspicion that they were members of the Communist party. People's lives were ruined by being tainted with the tinge of Communism when they were patriotic Americans.

Joe McCarthy, the self appointed expert on how to spot a Communist, was discredited eventually but not until after he had done a great deal of damage to many people. He didn't commit the damage all on his own. He had help from others who listened to him and who had the power to implement punishments on those whose names he had blackened. I feel sure that most of those in power thought they were doing a good thing. I hope that they weren't doing what they did because they were evil people but maybe I am wrong.

Claiborne Paul Ellis is one of the people whom Kathryn Schulz talks about in her book, Being Wrong. C. P. Ellis is a man who went through a transformation after being an Exalted Cyclops of the KKK. In 1970 after being appointed to participate in a series of workshops on getting the citizens of Durham to accept integration, Ellis was put in a situation where he got to know an African American woman by the name of Ann Atwater. He saw how similar her life was to his own, how the issues that she had dealt with were so much like the same issues that he had dealt with in his life. He realized that he and she were very much alike. Consequently, he resigned from the KKK and went to work for the  International Union of Operating Engineers. In 1994 when he retired he stated that his greatest professional accomplishment was helping forty low income African American women negotiate the right to take Martin Luther King Day as a paid holiday, the first contract in the city of Durham to honor the civil rights leader's memory!

What was particularly interesting to me was Ellis's feelings towards a Klansman who said in 1988 at the Democratic National Convention, "I hope Jesse Jackson gets AIDS and dies." Ellis said to Studs Terkel, "I felt sympathy for him. That's the way my old friends used to think. Me, too." Kathryn Schulz writes, "At the heart of Ellis's story of error and transformation is the statement: that was me."

I don't think that there is any way to talk anyone out of being wrong when they believe that they are right. Ellis had to get to that point on his own. He got there by being in circumstances where he got to know someone so well that he learned that his preconceived assumptions were wrong. Before his transformation he had operated on limited knowledge. He was the product of the environment where he grew up. He was not aware that he was wrong until he was faced with information that lead him to only one conclusion. From that point on he turned his own life around and did his best to help rather than hinder the opportunities of people who were much like him other than the color of their skin.

One of the factors that go into influencing our beliefs according to Schulz's book are the people with whom we hang out. Thus, if you consider the Asch line experiment that I described in an earlier post, and to put this most simply, if we hang out with people who see a longer line as a shorter line, we will tend to see the longer line as the shorter line too. That might be too simplistic as an example for you and perhaps you are sure that you would choose the correct line regardless of what anyone else was choosing. However, we are influenced by the people with whom we live and socialize.

If we were brought up in a family that espoused a particular religion, belief system and/or political party, many of us tend to be of that same religion, belief system or party. Not all of us, of course, but probably more often than not.

If we have a personal problem and we find others to share our problems with, we tend to see many things in life in a different way than we had before. Depending on the group that we choose or is chosen for us, our subsequent decisions can be influenced by what we learn in that group. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. Consider the support that many people have found in twelve step groups. Then consider what has occurred to the many people who have joined cult groups where enormous tragedies occurred that no one saw coming until it was too late. Consider what occurred to those who were labeled as Commies by Joe McCarthy. Consider what happened to the many parents who were charged with sexual abuse after the publication of the book, The Courage to Heal, which supported the existence of memories apparently recovered in therapeutic situations that in many cases later turned out to be false.

C. P. Ellis grew up believing in certain things and once he was put in a situation outside of his comfort zone but a situation where he had to get to know someone whom he never would have known under his usual circumstances, he was faced with evidence that what he had believed about African Americans was untrue and he had been part of the effort to limit their ability to have the same opportunities that he and others had for themselves.

There are a number of ways to be wrong in the world. I find new ones every day. I am wrong a LOT! My memory is not always reliable. I remember some things incorrectly. I am aware that others remember some things about me incorrectly. That's okay. The inaccuracies are mostly unimportant. I am not going to be a judge. I know that inaccuracies in my own memory are not due to my creating lies. It is possible that the inaccuracies of others are also not due to their creating lies.

I can understand C. P. Ellis's sympathy with the Klan member. I hate racism and discrimination and I hate hurting other people. Yet I understand his feeling of sympathy. It is not that he has any agreement with the man who is expressing racism. It is that he has been there, done that, learned that he was wrong, moved on, and has tried to live a life where he did the opposite of what he once did. He recognizes where the wrong headed thinking came from. He recognizes that the Klansman is coming from a background where that is the result and that if the Klansman has a different kind of experience, he may end up in a very different place. He recognizes that once upon a time he was that Klansman.

I have relatives on my husband's side who have gone through a transformation from having strong feelings of the need for separation from African Americans to being in close relationships to African Americans. An African American married into the family. Another African American is one of the closest friends of another relative. They have grown. As they got to know others close up and personal, they learned that they had been wrong. I don't think they talk about it but several have gone through a transformation.

One thing that I hate to do that I think that most people hate to do is to do something that hurts another person. The way that life goes, it is impossible to get through life without hurting others due to differing needs and points of view and circumstances no matter how much we would wish that hurt wouldn't occur. Sometimes we never even know that we have hurt someone. Other times we find out years later that something that someone remembers is a hurtful memory to them and we can't remember what they are talking about at all. Sometimes it is us who remember things as hurtful and perhaps no one else ever remembers at all. We grow. We learn. Like Ellis we do things differently. We grow some more.
The point that I want to make about being wrong is that in our efforts to deal with our own pain online that it is possible to become abusers ourselves. It is possible that we don't know the answers. It is possible that we aren't that good at diagnosing strangers, that we aren't always right, that we don't know that everyone we encounter online is doing the right thing. For all we know we could be participating in the further hurt of some person who does not deserve any more hurt in their life. We could be doing that while believing that we are doing something right and honorable and that we are doing so due to our own need to protect others from abuse. Our intention might be to protect and prevent abuse but in our lack of knowledge of other people we may commit abuse. We can believe in our hearts that we are doing the right thing while doing the wrong thing.

If you're old enough to remember that old TV program Hill Street Blues, you might  remember that line that was repeated at the end of the first scene of every episode. Sergeant Phil Esterhaus would say to the assembled policemen before they went out to work, "Hey, let's be careful out there." I'd add to that and say, "Let's be careful out there not to hurt anyone." If you hurt someone, you might well be hurting someone who is a lot like you. Maybe more like you than you have any clue.