I was on Facebook recently when I stumbled across a particularly nasty political meme. It showed a group of armed nazis with accompanying text that conflated the U.S. gun control debate with the Holocaust. That meme didn’t sit well. I typed out a hostile reply and slammed the enter key.
Several hours later I got the reply I wasn’t looking for: “I think you’re right,” the Facebook offender said. “I’ll be more careful before I post something next time.”
I was dumbfounded. I expected a fight and got unconditional surrender. And suddenly, I felt bad—like a bully. I need not have though. His post was offensive. In his reply, however, my Facebook friend did something few can: he admitted his own wrong. He was humble. This is not the traditional definition of humility (I’ll get to that soon). But it’s an important part of humility. I hope to show why.
From all forms of public discourse—not just social media—humility seems to be on the decline. Politics are polarized. Being wrong is shameful—more shameful, in fact, than bold-face lying. Our political leaders do this. So do sports stars. Even religious figures.
Where has humility gone? Perhaps we never had it to begin with. It was only an ideal, celebrated but never adopted. Or perhaps we once did, and it’s a casualty of our changing media landscape. Debate is more public than ever, after all. No one likes to admit they are wrong with everyone is watching.
Humility, however, seems to have been eroding before social media came along. Perhaps it’s our political leadership. Our supposedly enlightened leaders have led by example—not toward humility, but to haughtiness.
Or maybe it’s the way we learn. The more we read, the more we study, the more authority it confers. We can come to know right and wrong. Except that we don’t, really.
The things we believe are true are part of our identity. They make us who we are. So admitting you are wrong isn’t always just conceding a point. It’s also departing from the vision you have of yourself.
Once formed, however, we rarely question how we arrived at the identity we hold. The problem is this: if we encounter evidence—a statistic or experiment—which threatens something we hold true, we will purposefully distort it in order to protect our identity. Admitting wrong, for some people, is nearly impossible. It would destroy the very image they have of themselves. Studies have proven this point many times over.
Is the solution abandoning our identity? Certainly not. Rather, we should strive for humility not only in what we know, but in who we are. Never hold yourself, or your opinions in too high esteem. This is humility in the traditional sense. It goes hand in hand with the version of humility I just introduced. We need it to admit when we are wrong. And—from time to time—we need to admit we are wrong to keep ourselves humble.
Everyone should recognize that there are certain things we can never know. And everyone should recognize that what we ‘know’ is always colored through our own cultural upbringing. We shouldn’t try to know everything. If anything, learning should help us become more aware of our own ignorance.
If there ever was humility in the world, the things I have mentioned, and likely many more have led to its decline. Yet there are things we can all do to help change that: A concession in a coffee conversation or an admittance in a Facebook debate. When I confronted my Facebook friend, I won the argument. And I learned a lot. But it’s the arguments that we lose, indeed, our willingness to lose, that has the most to teach us.