Defensiveness arises when we suspect we may be wrong

In my experience, those who become defensive and angry in a discussion are those who aren’t sure their position is correct.

They respond with anger when they’re afraid of being found out, when they’re afraid they might be wrong.

That’s always been a good reminder for me when I find my ire raising: something’s not right with my thinking, and it’s up to me to fix it; it’s not up to me to attack someone else.

When in the history of the world has attacking someone with an opposite point of view brought them around to agreement?

disrespectful to tell the truth

Why there will be different answers to these questions, and why that’s ok

Each of my writing classes was subjected to the following experiment.

I’d divide the students into three groups, have all of them close their eyes, then, one group at a time, they’d open their eyes to read three words on the board.

The first group would read this:


After they closed their eyes, I’d erase those words and write the next three for the second group:


After they closed their eyes, the third group would open theirs to find I’d written this:


I’d erase those words, then write the following:


Once the all the students opened their eyes again, I’d ask them, group by group, what the missing letter should be to complete the word.

The first group would quickly supply, “It’s an i. The word should be ripe.”

This is when the third group would begin to squirm, feeling like they’ve missed something.

The second group would frown a little, but they weren’t too concerned as they said, “No, the letter should be o. The word is rope.

While the RIPE group would be a little surprised, their response was nothing compared to the discomfort of the third group.

Apologetically, I’d turn to them next. Always there was hesitation, until someone would offer, “The word should be rape.”

The first two groups would stare at them in shock.

“Sorry,” I’d say to the third group, “but you proved this point: all of us see the world in different ways, based upon what you’ve been exposed to. As writers—as people—we frequently don’t understand why one seemingly obvious situation presents itself in a completely different way to others. We assume our interpretation is always the clearest, but depending upon our experiences, there may be many different ‘correct’ interpretations. And, as you can also see, our responses to a benign situation are deeply affected by what’s going on in our heads.”

If my students remembered nothing else from my classes, I’m fairly certain they remembered this example.

And it’s probably the most important lesson.

What we’re exposed to creates our interpretation of the world.

How we’ve been raised, what we watch, what we fantasize about, what we believe all taints—for good, or for bad, or for indifferent—how we interpret the world around us.

Repeatedly our society screams about what’s right and wrong, just and unfair, malignant and benign.

And here’s the crazy part: everyone is right . . . in their own minds. According to their experiences, they are interpreting the world as they think it really is.

Paul discovered 2,000 years ago, that “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” Not only are our perceptions warped by glass, but it’s tinted so that what we see isn’t even cast in the correct light.

I’ve never met anyone who actively promotes ideas or beliefs that they felt are inherently wrong.

Everyone thinks they’re seeing things as they really are, pushing for what they believe is the best thing.


There’s no solution to this. And there doesn’t have to be. There’s no correcting those who see “rope” when you know it should be “ripe.” There’s no changing someone’s mind by telling (or shouting at) them they’re wrong. That’s never worked.


There is, however, recognizing that everyone interprets the same situation differently.

Each one of my classes did the same thing at the end of this experiment: they turned to their peers in the other groups and asked, “Why did you see that word as rope when I thought it should be rape?” In less than a minute, everyone’s answers made sense.

No one argued that someone offered the wrong solution. Everyone agreed that, based upon their exposure before, each person’s response was correct.

If you don’t understand why someone thinks the way they do, try asking. I don’t believe you have a right to argue against someone’s point of view until you fully understand it. (And when you do, you may not want to argue at all.)

Two things I’ve taken away from this experiment:

  1. People don’t HAVE to agree. I’d split up friends for the groups, and they’d be surprised to hear each other’s differing responses, but they’d still remain friends. They didn’t argue, or belittle, or shun, or mock, or condemn. They’d take a few minutes to understand each other, then they’d just let the differences be.
  2. People can choose to change their minds. The attitudes which most impressed me were those of students who said, “I don’t like the way I was thinking about those letters. I now want to see the word as RIPE instead of RAPE.” And they would. No one forced them to change their minds, but they listened, open-minded and open-hearted, to why others interpreted the letters differently, and they chose themselves to accept that new way of thinking.

So can we all.

       Perrin turned to his wife. “That’s why I married you, isn’t it? You always see the sides I can’t.”
       Mahrree reached across the table to squeeze his hand. “And you always see the sides I don’t notice. Works pretty well that way, doesn’t it?
~Book 5, Safety Assured Leaving East of Medicetti

Don’t be afraid of my opinion, because I’m not afraid of yours

I’m fascinated by how many people are terrified to allow someone else an opinion contrary to their own.

If someone says/writes/believes something differently than we do, we’re struck with an almost primal need to purge that difference.
For some reason which I can’t figure out yet, we’re terrified by differences.

The obvious examples are terrorists and racists and any other form of negative “–ist”.
But I’m not talking about the obvious bullies who are acting out of what they believe is “righteous condemnation,” disguising their cowardice.
No, I’m talking about you and me, our neighbors, families, coworkers, students who, when presented with an attitude different than our own, shrink back in worry.

Perhaps we strike out fearful that maybe we’re the ones in the wrong, but we don’t want to change, so we better smack down the opposition. (But that’s only my opinion.)

But here’s a radical notion: What if there’s room for all of us to have our own opinions, and we don’t have to fight every different idea, but simply . . . let them be?

Aristotle said thousands of years ago that the mark of an educated mind is to entertain an idea without accepting it. 

Are we yet evolved enough to follow the Ancient Greek’s advice?
Recent evidence would suggest no.

Think about how many articles you’ve read where an opinion is stated, and commenters rage that the authors are wrong. I’ve frequently published letters to the editor (opinions) and recently published a longer piece expressing my reasons (opinion) why I don’t cry when I send an adult child away on a mission for two years. I was explaining my experiences, yet some commenters said they felt “judged.”

Judged? By MY experience?
What an odd way to think.
(Uh-oh—someone’s going to judge my opinion on that, I just know it . . .)

But here’s the thing: we all express OPINIONS, and we should. These are not statements of fact, not insistences for policies, not movements to obliterate all other opinions.

Opinions are merely interpretations of life based on one’s experience.

And they are all different. And that’s ok. (In my opinion, that is.)

Yet I’ve seen people squirm in discomfort, scowl in surprise, and even rage in fury when someone else’s experience runs counter to theirs, as if their lives have been suddenly invalidated.

But every person feels and interprets differently, and here’s the marvelous truth: the world IS big enough for all of us to have different opinions.
Here are some opinions I’ve heard recently which turned into actual—and unnecessary—arguments:
–Taking trip to Disneyland/Yellowstone/New York City is stupid/dull/overrated and a waste of time and money.
–Home schooling/public schooling/private schooling shows you don’t have any faith in the system/yourself/the world in general.
–Going to college/not going to college is the biggest mistake you’ll ever make.
–Having one/three/ten children is an excellent/irresponsible decision.
–Letting your kids play/not play on the computer/watch TV/not watch TV is a sure way to ruin/help your children.
–Starting a business/working for someone else is the only way to be sure of your future security.

And, fascinatingly, all of these opinions are ACCURATE.

Because these opinions are based upon individual’s circumstances, and if that circumstance is evaluated honestly, then that opinion is correct, even if it runs counter to what someone else believes.
 (But that’s my opinion.) opinion definition

I think vacationing at the beach is dreadfully dull. My in-laws think it’s ultimately relaxing. We’re both correct.

When I taught critical writing, I’d spend weeks trying to explain that various opinions can all be correct, but even by the end of the semester many college students still struggled with that idea.

I had an excellent test of this early in my teaching career. Before Salt Lake City hosted the Winter Olympics in 2002, there was controversy among Utahns about the impact of the games. I had a student who absolutely opposed the Olympics, while I thought their coming was the greatest thing ever. The assignment for the semester was to write an extensive research paper supporting an opinion, and guess what this guy chose for his subject?
The Damaging Effects of the Winter Olympics.
I didn’t like his topic, as you might imagine. While I am a conservationist at heart, living in a host city of the Olympics had been a dream of mine since I was a little kid. (Ironically, we were living in Virginia in 2002, and I confess I went to my bedroom during the Opening Ceremonies and wept because I wasn’t there.)

Anyway, Olympics-Hating-Student was smart. Each day he’d ask me my opinion about an aspect of the Olympics—traffic, recontouring of ski slopes, building of ice rinks, etc.—and then he’d take careful notes of what I said. He’d smile gratefully, smugly even, and would leave me stewing as to what he was up to.
It turns out his research paper became a carefully orchestrated opinion argument to prove my opinion wrong in every paragraph.

It was absolutely brilliant.

Oh, I didn’t agree with a word of it, but I gave him the highest grade I ever awarded: a 198/200 (he had a few comma issues). While I didn’t agree with his opinions, I had to agree that his ideas had merit and value, and while there were not ideas I wanted to embrace, I would allow him to embrace his opinions.

When he got back his paper, I watched as he nervously opened to the last page of evaluation. The grin which broke out across his face was priceless.
His peers, who knew I opposed all of his arguments, glanced at his grade and were astonished.
“We thought you’d hate his paper!” one of them exclaimed.
“I disagree with his ideas,” I told them, “but he’s entitled to his opinions, especially when he’s so carefully researched them and presented them. He did an excellent job. Who said I have to agree with his premise and conclusions?”

Sheldon Big Bang Theory  | You watch your mouth, Shelly. Everyone's entitled to their opinion. But Mom, evolution is not opinion, it's a fact. And that, Shelly, that i | image tagged in sheldon big bang theory  | made w/ Imgflip meme makerMay I submit the following: We balk at others’ opinions because we’re afraid they may be right.
We feel the need to fight back because we aren’t entirely secure in our own opinions.

May I also submit this: We don’t have to.

If you don’t like what you’re reading, stop reading.
If you don’t agree with someone else, agree to disagree and LEAVE IT ALONE.
Stop fighting. Nothing good comes from a fight. Ever.

I believe that God gave us our agency—our ability to choose—to allow us a full range of experiences in this life. When we, for any reason, try to shut down or deny another person of their opinions, we are essentially taking away their agency. That’s a devilish attitude, and one we need to avoid at all costs, or we become devilish—controlling, angry, and overbearing—ourselves.

There’s a time to push against another’s opinion, and that’s when YOUR opinion intends to change MY way of:

  • Living
  • Eating
  • Dressing
  • Worshipping
  • Teaching my children
  • Living according to the dictates of MY conscience

Then I will fight back.

There are many obvious examples of this in the world, but let me give you a more local one: A friend of mine recently took her daughter to a musical camp where kids could be trained by professional musicians. The camp fell on my friend’s daughter’s 12th birthday, and to celebrate my friend splurged and bought a store-made cake. She placed it on the food table where other parents had brought snacks, intent upon letting everyone share in her daughter’s birthday celebration.

Except one mother didn’t agree. Putting herself in charge of the table (no one’s sure if she was asked to, but she set herself there anyway), she announced to the children that sugar would make them hyper, and she wouldn’t allow anyone to have any cake, since she didn’t allow it for her own children.

This woman decided—based on her opinion and rather poor science (sugar does NOT cause hyperactivity in children–read this)—that no one should have the opportunity to choose for themselves if they wanted cake.
One person’s mere opinion overruled everyone else’s choices.
That’s wrong.
(In my opinion, that is.)

In our homes we have the right (for now) to impose standards as to what will be allowed and what won’t. In my house I won’t allow abuse, or vulgarity, or pornography, or music and/or entertainment that promote anything like that. In your house, those rules may be different.

But it is NOT my prerogative to barge into your house and force my standards—be they more relaxed or more stringent—upon your family. However, if you come to my house, I expect you to respect how we do things, as I will respect how you do things in your home.

As long as your opinions don’t threaten to take away my freedoms, I’ll keep my mouth shut, and I’ll even be your friend.
But if that line is crossed, if someone’s opinions try to change the way my family lives, then I will push back.

You can live and think and worship and behave differently than me—I have no problem with that, really. We should afford a level of respect to everyone we love. I don’t agree with every opinion of my husband’s, but I won’t detail those differences here right now because we’ve made it 27 years by agreeing to disagree, and I’m not about to disrupt that cart.

We make these kinds of “opinion accommodations” with many people we love.
So why do we not always do so with strangers? With other nationalities, religions, cultures, genders? Why do we feel the urge—even the sanctimonious right—to blast online the opinions and experiences of people we don’t know simply because we can?

Here’s a radical thought (and this is just my opinion): if you don’t like what you’re reading, stop reading it and move on.  

Don’t attack, don’t claim to be judged, don’t cry foul, don’t do anything. Just step away and do something constructive and useful instead.

I tend to clean the kitchen now instead of lashing out with unexplained venom, crying, “What an idiot! Who does he think he is, writing that?!”
“He” probably thinks he’s a person—just like yourself—who feels the desire to share his opinion to help others of like minds realize their experiences are valid. He’s not forcing his way of life upon you, so calm down already and go scrub something!

But then again, that’s only MY opinion, and I’m frankly, I’m entitled to it, as you are entitled to your own.

“What’s wrong with having opinions?” Mahrree said, her voice rising to the pitch of a trapped cat. “What’s more frightening are people with no opinions at all. ‘Oh, that sounds nice, let’s do it! It just feels good!’ What’s wrong with thinking?” 
~Book 3, The Mansions of Idumea