In my last year of high school my group of friends included a sophomore who behaved inappropriately around the girls in the group, to say the least.
I won’t belabor the details, but suffice it to say that there were many of us who should have known better and spoken up. But the girls laughed it off, so I, at least, thought it wasn’t my place to say anything. If they were OK with it, why shouldn’t I be? It was just him being who he was, a jokester, the group clown; totally harmless, right?
When I found out, a couple of years later, just how bad it got for some of the girls, I was ashamed of myself. As I should have been, as I still am. They were obviously laughing it off as a defense mechanism, a way of deflecting what was in essence an act of humiliation in front of a group they considered their friends. Several of these girls were called on to give statements for an investigation of the situation. That investigation resulted in the boy’s expulsion from the school.
Early in the series of events that led up to the investigation, I realized the extent to which I had embraced comforting lies. I had known better but I had chosen not to know. I had not wanted to know, and had told myself little stories, like “it’s sexist to act like some kind of white knight when the girl herself is telling us it is fine.” And then I had mostly avoided thinking about it very much.
I received that wake-up call about my own capacity for self-deception over a decade ago. The bigger shock was not that I was able to be so willfully blind, but that so many of my friends continued to be in light of what the investigation uncovered. In fact, they doubled down, entrenching themselves in a persecution narrative which provided a useful framework for rationalizing away any hint of their own guilt.
Self-deception is a shameful thing, but we all indulge in it to varying extents. Part of the problem is the elusive nature of knowledge itself; for the most part, we make judgment calls rather than perceive unblemished truth. So what, then, distinguishes self-deception from an error made in good faith?
I do not pretend to have the answer to this question. But there is a difference, and I have experienced it. I cannot give you a scientific answer, but I can bear witness to the phenomena as I have lived it. Hopefully some will find this to be of value.
The simplest answer I can provide is that it is a difference of moral commitment. Error stems from a mistake in reasoning, or from lacking important context, while self-deception is an unwillingness to own the consequences of being wrong. To admit that my friend was a sexual harasser shading into a sexual assailant was to admit that I was complicit in something abominable. I could not stand to think of myself that way, and so I reached for ways of construing the situation that were easier for me to handle.
We never attempt to understand in a vacuum; it always ties back to our understanding of our own situation, with varying degrees of directness. Meanwhile, there are always multiple ways to construe that situation. We don’t even have to talk about anything so fractured as competing worldviews here; within a single worldview, in which sexual assault, friendly and mutual flirting, and harmless joking are all acknowledged to exist, the onus is still on you to figure out which of these situations you have observed. And the decision to treat one instance as harmless joking isn’t one-off; it means that you did not treat it as sexual assault. If you later realize you were wrong, that means admitting that you did not say something sooner, when you were able to.
You could still have been wrong because of error, but the initial error brings about a temptation for self-deception later on, to avoid having to confront the situation now or admit you were wrong then. Sometimes this manifests itself as cowardice; you avoid the situation. Sometimes it manifests itself as defensiveness; you go after anyone who threatens the safety blanket of lies you have woven.
This defensiveness is, I think, the chief cause of aggressive online commentary. Regardless of the topic, the commenter often has a worldview—which they may have arrived at quite honestly—that they find comforting. They may also take comfort in the easy deception that that worldview must be true. And so suggestions to the contrary are not taken as the beginning of a conversation, but the opening salvo in an assault on something precious.
But I digress.
The character of an honest mistake is that it is honest. The character of self-deception is that it is deception; it involves embracing a lie. The lie may be very small—just the idea that alternative interpretations aren’t even worth considering, perhaps—but it nevertheless introduces dishonesty into the judgment.
Purification is not possible. Self-deception and honest mistakes are so hard to disentangle in the moment that nearly every false belief involves a substantial amount of both. Good faith is therefore not moral purity of judgment, but taking ownership of past and present wrongs. Embracing a willingness to ask yourself hard questions and consider answers that might cast you in a very bad light. Own the self-deception, once ferreted out, in its entirety—do not use any legitimate errors as an excuse or cover.
Perfection of judgment and perfection of character are both forever beyond our reach. And so we press on, and do the best we can. We must always be ready to confess our wrongdoings, and we should always be hoping for redemption.
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