Bill Long 5/16/08
Do You or Don't You?
One of the perennial problems I faced as a professor both in undergraduate and law contexts was whether I should correct students when they made errors. Errors come in many shapes and sizes, of course, from small grammatical ones in speaking or writing to historical or textual errors to faulty interpretations of data. But the question continued to dog me, more and more insistently as the years wore on, regarding whther I should actively intervene to correct students. On the one hand, one could look at the teacher-student relationship as having in it an implicit "correct me" contract, for how can students improve unless they have someone "looking over their shoulders," to an extent, and pointing out their errors? On the other hand, however, I know from experience that correction is most valuable when the person corrected either is in the mood to be corrected (i.e., has given you express permission to correct him/her) or generally seems to be the kind of person that might profit from correction. Who doesn't know people (fill in you/my own name) who react so negatively to untimely correction that it actually hinders relationships and can lead to unpleasant confrontation?
The tension between whether or not to correct is reflected neatly in Proverbs 26, where two apparently contradictory pieces of advice are given right after each other. Because they are in close proximity, we need to assume they are consistent with each other--or else that the Biblical authors were real boobs. What might these two verses mean?
"4 Do not answer fools according to their folly,
or you will be a fool yourself.
5 Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will be wise in their own eyes."
How can we be exhorted both to answer fools and not answer fools according to their folly? I think the meaning of the first is that we be careful not to get in a "shouting" or "pissing" match with a shouter, foolish person, or someone who will drag us into the mud after them. We will "be a fool" ourself if we do this. People won't be able to tell the true from the false fool, and we will lose whatever credibility we have on many issues.
The reader of the first exhortation might get the impression that the right thing, therefore, is just to leave fools alone. Let them exist in their foolishness. Isn't that the implication of v.4? Not really, when you look at v. 5. The message of v.5 is that we ought to confront a fool in his/her folly, lest he think he/she is wise. There really is a significant danger in our society of people thinking they are wiser/smarter than they really are. I see it all the time. A person may have a smidgen of expertise in one area of life, and he (usually male) acts as if he is an expert on everything. Such a person can't just be allowed to continue in his mistaken ways, lest the next statement he makes begin to injure someone. Error, it seems, must be confronted. People ought not to be too "wise" in their own eyes.
Applying these principles in life is anything other than easy. I generally ask students now, or others who ask my opinion on things, if they are giving me permission to correct them when I think they are mistaken. Actually, this isn't a bad thing to ask of someone, even a fool, because if you ask his permission to correct him, this statement might even function as a reminder to him that he makes mistakes. A person is delivered from his foolishness once he realizes how frequently he is bathed in mistakes. Indeed I know from personal experience that it is very valuable to be corrected by people who know what they are talking about. I gain knowledge, and perhaps I even gain a friend. I also realize that I have a long, long way to go before I have detailed and precise knowledge of all the subjects I would like to master.
Two Examples From Recent Days
You run into fools all the time. Two of my encounters in recent days were on the phone. In both instances I corrected them; in both instances they "stomped off," so to speak. I didn't regret either. First, I got a call from a person who wasn't a solicitor (I am on the "Do Not Call" list), but he was one of those squirrely guys who isn't exactly soliciting even though he wants information. Instead of hanging up on the guy, I thought I would see how he presented himself. He said, "I would like to speak to Bill. Are you him?" To which I replied, "I am Bill, but you made a grammatical mistake. You should have said, 'Are you he?' since 'am' is a verb that doesn't take the objective case." Shortly after I gave my explanation, I heard a click on the line. He was gone. I really wanted to talk with him...
The other related to a call I initiated. I did so because I received a note from a collection company saying that a certain "William Long" owed several thousand dollars. I knew they had the "wrong Long," but I wanted to clear it up once and for all. So, when I got the guy on the line, we talked for a minute. I perceived right away that he was used to bullying people on the phone (maybe he deals with difficult clientele), but I wouldn't go along. I began to use bigger words than normal, and told him that his data didn't "comport" with the truth. When he heard me use the word "comport," he lost it. He said something to the effect, "Well, Mr. Big Man, comport, eh?" So, I saw that he needed humbling, and I told him he had the wrong guy, and that with previous collectors who persisted improperly with me, I notified the state attorney general, who then sent out questionnaires of more than 25 pages to the person, just to make sure they were treating people well. When I responded like this, he shut up immediately, became very sorry for bothering me, told me he would take my name off the list and then bid me a good day. I reported him to the AG's office, in any case, but I don't think they did anything about it this time around.
My approach now is to ask a person for permission on issues of correction. I think that is the best approach--unless they are being very arrogant or a real jerk. Then, I gently try to show them that they are being so. I think it is a private boon to them, even if they remain a fool. What do you think?
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long