There’s a line from legendary actor John Wayne in the film, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” that goes, “Never apologize, mister. It’s a sign of weakness.”
Since the film’s 1949 debut, that line has become ingrained in American culture. There are other variations that permeate our everyday life. Don’t apologize for who you are. Don’t apologize for being the smartest person in the room. Both well and good, but what if who you are is a cannibal? What if you’re the only person in the room?
Plus, it’s a line from a movie. Delivered by an actor. And that actor’s name isn’t really even John Wayne. He was born Marion Morrison. Nothing wrong with that, but maybe we shouldn’t form major cornerstones of our persona on something with so many layers of contrivance.
We worry a lot that children will see someone shooting people on TV and then do it in real life. But it’s not always the kids we need to worry about, and sometimes it can be a lot more subtle. Raise your hand if you know someone who treats “The Andy Griffith Show” as if it were a documentary about a real place, constantly referencing lessons from the show in real-life situations?
It’s a weird thing we do, and it can form unrealistic perceptions and expectations.
Going back to the nature of being contrite, particularly within the past few years, it seems we’ve reached a point where apologies, or even admitting we were wrong about something or aren’t expert on a given topic, are grave sins indeed.
This not only hurts us on a societal level, it stunts our personal development.
I think, from ages 16 to maybe 21 or so, it’s OK to pretend you know everything and never have to apologize. If you make it through those five years alive, you’ll have learned that’s not how life really works.
I’ve been in journalism for 20 years. I’ve reported on everything from car accidents to city councils to sports to state and national politics. I’ve run newsrooms staffed with reporters of varying expertise and experience. I still asked questions every day, because pretending you know something when you don’t is a good way to lose all trust and credibility fast.
Even now, when people call or write in because they’re legitimately unhappy with something in the Opinion section, I try to respond, or at least evaluate the complaint from their point of view. I want to understand where they’re coming from. Maybe they see something I don’t. This doesn’t always lead to a revelation or mutual understanding, but it beats assuming someone’s wrong just because they don’t think the same way.
There’s value in being curious. There’s value in allowing for your own fallibility. Am I perfect in that regard? No. Is anyone? Probably not. Can it go too far, leading to perpetual self-doubt? Yes. Try not to do that.
But I think it would benefit us all if some of us could get away from this notion that they can’t ever be wrong and, if they are, they somehow have to edit their own past to fit what they now believe.
Learning never stops, unless you choose to never learn. As we’ve seen, that leads to a broken system.
It’s something that’s easily fixable, as long as we can make that first step that seems so difficult — allow the possibility that our minds can be changed, not by some talking point or slogan, but by the right argument and common sense. And that might involve apologizing for things we’ve done in the past.
That’s not weakness. That’s the strength of knowing we can always make progress.