Perhaps we should be admitting our past mistakes

I’ve been thinking a lot about mistakes in the last year — things said and done that really shouldn’t have been. Sometimes I knew it at the time and did it anyway, and sometimes I didn’t, and they bubbled up like the remains of a bad dinner when I learned, later, how wrong they were. I often say that the question isn’t whether we’ll make mistakes, but how we’ll respond to them, and this is something I think about as I engage with the world.

I said a clueless, wrong, hateful thing once on a panel at a convention — we were discussing trans characters and I carelessly threw out the comment that trans women were ‘socialised’ as boys and had experiences of male privilege rooted in that. I posited that this might inform some behaviours and norms, for example. Someone in the audience probably twitched, but I didn’t notice, blithely moving on ‘next question.’

I said it because at the time, I thought it was true. I’d soaked it in from the culture around me, and some conversations with trans women, and it made sense to me — for a trans person socialised as a girl who very much did retain behavioural norms associated with that upbringing. I made the mistake of using slivers of information in the culture around me to confirm what I believed to be true based on my own experience, and I lived with that smug conclusion for years, and years, until I saw a discussion about this issue — I can’t remember precisely where or when.

At first I felt that kneejerk many of us feel when confronted with information that goes against what we think we know to be true. This couldn’t be. Okay, well, maybe it’s true for some women, sure, I guess, but my belief still holds true. And then I felt a sinking sensation and a growing discomfort and a hot flush, my mind taking me back involuntarily to a drab room and my oh-so-confident words ringing out in a room full of people — some of whom were privately appalled, some of whom no doubt noted my words for future reference, because how could a panelist be wrong about something?

That conversation wasn’t the time or place to lunge in and announce that I now understood the depths of my wrongheadedness and regretted it deeply. And the time or place never really arose — when the subject came up later, as it has again and again, I was firmly on the side of trans women explaining that no, being assigned male at birth doesn’t mean that you were ‘socialised’ male and experienced ‘male privilege,’ broadly speaking, unless an individual and specific person says that mirrors her experience. Instead, many trans women, over and over again, talk about how male privilege and misogyny were weaponised against them, and you should go read their work instead of listening to me blather about it.

Look at my comments and work up to a certain point and you’ll see the ‘male privilege’ argument. Look after, and you don’t. There was never a good time to talk about being wrong, and maybe that’s because we try collectively to make sure there’s never a good time to admit wrongness. I see shifts like this happen constantly, as people experience a challenge to a held belief and then quietly change it, and rarely discuss what happened to cause that change in attitudes.

I certainly don’t say, for example: ‘Yeah, I used to think that too, until…’ or ‘I can see why you’d think that, because I…’ I usually just say ‘no, that is wrong, and here are some reasons why, and here are some trans women who’ve discussed it in a way that I found informative and accessible, and you should push back on the notion that this is true, because it is not.’

But I wonder sometimes if this is a mistake to compound the first mistake. I often say that we aren’t born knowing everything, but people often approach me thinking I have the answer to everything, viewing me as an authority on things that I am not necessarily an authority on. It discomfits me when this happens, especially in cases when people shyly, nervously approach to say ‘actually, you’re wrong,’ fearing that I’m going to be a dragon about it rather than saying: ‘I hadn’t considered this from this perspective, thank you for coming to me, I’m going to think about it.’

Maybe we should be more open about the fact that our minds have shifted. We haven’t always been at war with…as Orwell wrote in 1984. We’re grownups. Culture is complicated. Social attitudes shift over time and our own awareness of those attitudes also shifts. Perhaps admitting this is one way we can bridge a divide at a time when many people say they are struggling with issues like counterfactual thinking and a total resistance to having conversations about things that may have changed, and how they have changed.

I thought about this while observing a conversation between my father and a friend about same gender marriage, a subject we’d talked about a lot. When it first came up between my father and me, he was opposed, and we had a lot of long conversations about this. When it came up at lunch with a friend, I tensed, trying to imagine what was going to happen.

‘I can see why you’d think that,’ my father said to his friend. ‘I actually thought that too until pretty recently — what’s the point? Why do gay people want to get married? But then I thought about it and I realized a better question might be ‘why not?’ How does it affect me if they get married? Shouldn’t people be able to get married to people they love if they want to? Why should I decide who gets to have a wedding?’

His approach wasn’t just about argument, but also about empathy, and it worked in a way that I feel like many of my conversations didn’t. By admitting that he’d been wrong, and had said and done foolish and unkind things, my father opened the door for his friend to admit that she was also wrong — she didn’t have to approach the conversation from a position of defensiveness, because my father had already established that this wasn’t about a purity test or an absolutist approach. It was just a conversation between two friends about a thing one of them honestly hadn’t thought about very much, and the ability to admit that made it easier for her to find her way through. She didn’t need to feel embarrassed or awkward or judged — for he had established that he was just like her.

Image: Mistakes, Peter Lindberg, Flickr