Those of us of a certain age are likely to recall the old schoolteacher’s threat that bad behavior would end up on our “permanent record,” either first-hand or as witnessed in pop culture. Supposedly, we could be tagged with evidence of our misdeeds and have that evidence used against us decades hence.

That was a lie, obviously, one meant to keep ornery kids in line, but it’s a lie that has, thanks to technology and social media, become a reality. Stuff we put on the Internet is forever, and it’s only masked by our relative anonymity. The more famous you become, the more likely someone will go mining for dirt. This should serve as a strong caution for everyone who uses the Net, and especially for younger people.

This isn’t much of a revelation, but there’s a flip side to this “permanent record” matter that may explain the increasing fractiousness within today’s society and political forum. It starts with this quote, recently shared by a relative:

Don’t cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it. — Anonymous

It is, unfortunately, human nature to do so, to cling to a mistake. Confirmation bias and belief perseverance are well-understood phenomena, and people often go to great lengths to pretzel-logic justification for a belief in the face of even a mountain of contradictory evidence. The sociological and evolutionary reasons for these tendencies have been deeply studied, but their origin is less germane to today’s discussion than the simple fact that they are real and powerful. People are slow and reluctant to change their minds on a matter, and even more so when they’ve “gone public” with their views.

This is where technology makes things worse. Given how easy it is to share an opinion to the world, it’s FAR more likely nowadays that one’s thoughts on a matter have gone public. Moreso, they’ve gone “permanent.” Yes, you can delete tweets and social media accounts, but there’s no guarantee that those deletions are wholly successful. One screenshot taken by someone can spoil your best efforts.

Most of us don’t want to delete our social media accounts to clear our permanent records, anyway. Thus, we’re stuck with public opinions on countless matters, large and small, and thus, we’re more likely to resist changing our public opinions even when new information comes to light.

This is magnified even further if we’ve been long and strong in an opinion. Argue vehemently about a point, and you risk mockery and derision should you change your mind. We all remember how “flip flop” became a political taunt, do we not? It’s ridiculous that a sentiment as obvious as “when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?” isn’t overwhelmingly the norm, but human behavior is not immune to ridiculousness.

Social media has come under increasing scrutiny of late for its role in widening the chasm between the Left and the Right. I recently blogged about how the ease of sharing opinions has contributed to a “dumbass and dog-pile” phenomenon that dominates our on-line political disagreements, and the magnifying effect that social media has on belief perseverance is another aspect of the same problem.

It’s OK to change your mind on a matter. Really – it is. Especially if you come to have new information or if circumstances change. Especially, but not solely. Musing on a subject, arguing it with others, or simply letting an opinion season with time can change your viewpoint, even in the absence of new, “a-ha!” information. It goes against our grain to do so, but that doesn’t mean we can’t. And, when and if someone tries to call us to task for evolving an opinion, we aren’t obligated to twist ourselves into knots to satisfy their rulebook.

The effects of social media on our interactions has served to increase our resistance to mistake-correction or opinion-changing, even as (well, because) it facilitates our access to other opinions and information.

What can we do about it? Societally, not much. Individually, however, we can do two things:

1 – Recognize the phenomenon in ourselves, and heed the wisdom of the anonymous quote.
2 – Recognize the courage and difficulty it takes for someone else to reverse a public opinion, and not drop “nyah-nyah FLIP-FLOP” attacks on others when they are sincere and honest in their error-correction or opinion-evolution.

Honesty and civility are eternal virtues. If we want to live in a good society, it’s best we embrace them.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


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