When You Realize That You’ve Been Wrong

One of the most challenging aspects of social justice work is that as you learn more about things like systemic racism and gender theory, you’re going to be confronted with the fact that you’ve held views in the past that you now realize were hurtful. The easiest path, and one taken by far too many, is to reject the new knowledge and continue defending your past beliefs. The next easiest path is to rewrite history and pretend that you’ve always known what you know now. But if you can push through those self-protective cognitive biases, a third path opens up: taking the time to fully process your change of heart and use it constructively. So what does that look like?

  1. Apologize and make restitution. I can’t emphasize enough how important this step is. Being wrong on social justice issues is fundamentally different from being wrong about the capital of Spain. Odds are, there’s someone somewhere along the way who had to listen to you defend your old beliefs, and may have been hurt by them. Did you defend a belief in “traditional marriage” to a gay family member? Did you tell a Black friend that All Lives Matter? If you’re lucky enough to still have that person in your life, seek them out and offer a genuine apology. And make sure that you’re offering a true apology, not a request for reassurance or forgiveness. Ask them if there’s anything that you can do to make restitution for your actions, but don’t expect them to become your teacher. Remember: they don’t owe you anything. You’re the one who made the mistake. If you can’t make restitution directly to the person you wronged, seek out other members of their community. Donate to the local queer community center. Volunteer for a criminal justice reform organization.
  2. Issue a retraction. Most of us who hold opinions have stated them to other people at one point or another. Think back to where and to whom you talked about your old beliefs, and see if there’s some way to reach out to those audiences and let them know that you’ve changed your mind and why. In some ways this is easier than step 1, since you won’t have to confront the ways that you might have hurt people, but in some ways it can be harder, because someone who agreed with your old beliefs in the past may still do so now. But even if it’s hard, it is so worth doing. You might not think of yourself as a persuasive person, but by acting as a model that your former audience identifies with, and explaining the journey that led you to change your mind, you can show them a path away from harmful beliefs far more easily than could someone they would see as an “outsider”.
  3. Think hard about why you thought as you did. What were the information sources you were relying on? What were the social pressures that pushed you in that direction? What other beliefs do you still hold that were shaped by those sources and pressures? Reevaluate them. They aren’t necessarily wrong. The fact that your private Christian school gave you bad information about sex ed doesn’t immediately mean that they were wrong about the quadratic formula, but what did they teach you about American history? Can you use your growth in one area to help springboard you in another?
  4. Think hard about why you changed your mind. What were the experiences that influenced you? What were the books you read? Who were the people who helped guide you? Then do your best to pay these efforts forward. Invite a conservative friend to come with you on your next outreach to the homeless. Buy extra copies of influential books and stick them in Little Free Libraries around town. Thank people who guided you and ask what you can do to help them spread the message. You now have a rare expertise in what gets people like you to change their minds. Don’t let that go to waste.
  5. Take the lessons that you’ve learned with you as you form new opinions. Too many people end up making similar mistakes in their new ideological contexts, because they’ve changed their opinions but not their way of analyzing the world. For example, a surprising number of converts to Islam who end up falling for jihadi BS have backgrounds in extreme Christian anti-Choice activism. If you realize that you’ve been led astray in the past by a drive for ideological purity, or a tendency to passively accept the opinions of those around you, be on guard for those same influences in your new ideological context.
  6. Be proud of yourself. Changing your mind takes courage, and a lot of the work that I’ve outlined here is really hard. It’s easy to get bogged down in guilt for what you’ve gotten wrong. So while it’s important not to give yourself any Ally trophies for simply coming around to the right side of an issue, take a few minutes now and then to reflect on how far you’ve come and give yourself credit for the work you’ve done. Then reinvest that positive energy into getting back to work.
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