Three Words We Need to Hear More in Politics

February 10th, 2011

By Dr. Jim Taylor

You didn’t hear those three words from the liberals after their off-the-mark accusations of right-wing instigation of the Tucson tragedy. You didn’t hear them from Michele Bachmann after her history-revising Tea Party response to President Obama’s State of the Union speech. These three words are almost entirely absent from the political landscape. Yet, for America to continue to listen to its populace, for politicians to work together to find solutions to today’s problems, and for the tone of civil discourse to remain just below a deafening roar, we need to hear those three words more often.

What are those three words, you ask? “I was wrong.” Those three simple words are absolutely radioactive in our politicosphere. Politicians, pundits, pontificators, and proselytizers are terrified to utter those words, even as they are called to the carpet for inarguably erroneous statements, nonfactual facts, denial of reality, and, well, just plain lies (and don’t forget damned lies and statistics). Even being mistaken (a less painful version of being wrong) is so difficult to admit to that those members of the politocracy, when they’re painted into a corner with their wrongness, revert to the now-infamous “mistakes were made,” thus semantically distancing themselves from the very mistakes that they did, in fact, make.

Where does this aversion for those three little words come from? Unfortunately, being wrong carries with it apparent baggage of such heft that those denizens of the Beltway believe that they will be crushed under its weight. At a psychological level, being wrong can hurt one’s self-esteem and makes people feel bad about themselves. When that common human reaction is applied to the insecure, egomaniacal, and narcissistic that populate the politicosphere, an acknowledgement of incorrectness is a direct attack on their unwavering certitude about everything in which they believe.

For those true believers (of every ilk), to be wrong is a failing that produces an psychic earthquake with a magnitude of 8.0 that would send shock waves through their entire belief system upon which those mistakes were built. And because their rightness is so righteous, to admit otherwise is an assault on their moral foundations. It’s not surprising that synonyms for wrong include blasphemous, depraved, evil, indecent, ungodly, and wicked. Who would want to be associated with such words.

The perceived price to pay for being wrong extends well beyond the walls of our crania. In the eyes of others, it opens the door to the possibility that whatever else one says or does may also be wrong. And the perceived social costs of confessing the sin of wrongness are devastating: embarrassment, shame and loss of public esteem, credibility, authority, and influence.

We live in a popular culture in which any failing, of which being wrong is one of its most egregious kinds, makes one a failure worthy of disgrace and ostracism. We also live in a culture of exceptionalism in which an admission of being wrong is seen as a blow to America’s national identity, esteem, and pride. And, of course, in our political culture, being wrong becomes a cudgel to be used against one’s detractors and enemies to discredit all future assertions and actions.

Yet, I believe that “cowboying up” to being wrong is actually a sign of strength that most people respect and admire, particularly against the current political backdrop of denial, ignoring, victimization, deflection, and equivocation, which are among the worst kinds of cowardice. It shows confidence without arrogance, reverence for what is right rather than fealty to what is expedient, and respect for others as well as respect for oneself.

Such an admission also says “I’m human” and stating that which should be obvious is, these days, an act of courage in a political world populated by many who have the hubris to believe that they have the omniscience of a deity rather than the limitations of humanity. Lastly, being able to say, “I was wrong” also says to one’s detractors, ” If I’m tough enough to admit I’m wrong, I’m tough enough to withstand your Don Quixote attacks.”

I believe that there’s far too much talking the talk and not enough walking the walk around here. And we have to start somewhere. I’m ready to walk the plank of culpability and accept the consequences. At the beginning of this piece I noted that the liberals were amiss in connecting the right-wing noise machine to the Tucson tragedy. Though I hate to admit it, I need those three little words myself right now. So here they are: “I was wrong.” Anyone care to join me?

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

(Visit Dr. Jim Taylor’s YouTube channel to see some of his television interviews.)

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4 Responses to “Three Words We Need to Hear More in Politics”

  1. Tom Carter |

    You’re right on again, Jim. I’ve often wondered the same thing — why can’t people just stand up on their hind legs and say, “Hey, I was wrong.” Even presidents can and should do it, and those who have usually come out better. Instead, what we’re getting more and more is a plethora of non-apologetic apologies in the passive voice (as you noted), “mistakes were made.”

    As one of the best recent examples, when President Obama jumped the gun and pronounced that the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly” in arresting Professor Gates without knowing any of the facts, he should have just admitted he was wrong and moved on to more important things. But no, we had to have that farce of a kabuki-theater beer summit at the White House.

  2. Dan Miller |

    Sometimes although rarely it happens.

    Tim Pawlenty, former Minnesota governor and likely presidential candidate, acknowledged that he once supported ‘cap and trade’ but has since switched his position.

    Have I changed by position?” he said. “Yes. But I’m not going to be cute about it, hem and haw, be dippy and dancy about it. Just saying yeah, it was a mistake, it was stupid. It was wrong.”

    It’s one of those man bites dog stories.

  3. Anonymous |

    @Dan: I’m not sure Pawlenty is a great example as his shift seems politically rather than philosophically motivated.

  4. Dan Miller |

    It’s been my observation that most public statements by politicians are politically motivated, and Pawlenty’s statement was probably in that category. It may also have been due in part to no longer holding the views (a) that human generated carbon emissions contribute significantly to climate change and (b) that “cap and trade” is a viable way of addressing the problem rather than a scam.

    There are non-political as well as political reasons to reject either or both of those views, as he seems to have done.

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