Speaking In The Present Tense Hides The Past

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

“I think that arguing well is an entirely separate skill from being correct, and some of the people who’ve learned to argue the best do so because it’s easier for them to manipulate people’s opinions than it is for them to manipulate facts.”

That’s true. I believe that.

What I dislike is the present-tense implication that I’ve always thought that way.

Whereas honestly, twenty-year-old Ferrett would have fought that statement tooth and nail, because he was a very good arguer, and he was all too often on the wrong side of the facts. Thirty-year-old Ferrett would have also fought it, but he probably would have retreated into his bedroom to think about it for a while (at least when he wasn’t sulking). Forty year old Ferrett would have been neutral on the topic.

Fifty year old Ferrett believes it.

Yet when I make that initial statement – “I think” – it doesn’t sound like a conversation I’ve been having with myself for years, the sum of a decades-long evolution on thoughts I’ve had. It doesn’t contain the concept that I might have been wrong on this in the past, or that I might have made this mistake myself constantly over the course of the years, or whether this is a new opinion or an old one.

The present tense gives it a veneer of immutability, whether it deserves one or not.

And I don’t like that because a lot of what I’m trying to say is that people are mutable. Everyone knows that who you are at fourteen isn’t the same person you are at twenty, but for some reason there’s this societal concept that at some point in life you get it together and your wisdom snaps in and that’s it.

Whereas the truth – I think – is that most people keep changing throughout their lives, for good or for ill. For every Fox News conservative, those once-loving grandparents who have soured into Trump over the years, there’s an older woman who wondered why gay people needed to get married back in 1990 but now are like “Love is love.”

Our opinions change.

And I find that present-tense, speaking-from-the-pulpit impression to be harmful because there’s that sense of this is who I am, this is who I’ve always been, I’ve always had this correct opinion and thus I have always behaved wonderfully. And hence, Good People have Good Opinions.

But it’s why I squirm away from anyone labelling me as a good guy. That opinion, in some cases, has been chipped out from hard-earned stupidity, cases where I bludgeoned people into numbness through Extremely Clever Dialectical Tricks, and when I say “This is how it is” it’s not some statement of purity, but rather a contemplation of how many times I had to fuck it up before I finally understood.

I’m a wiser person than I used to be. I’m a more compassionate one, too. But any statement I make that occludes my history as a flawed human being, someone who wasn’t spontaneously gestated with these ideas but instead came to them in part through the hard labor of those who worked to convince me, is to me an abomination.

We evolve together. I may be a better person today. But I was a worse person yesterday. And sometimes, that realization allows me to extend a necessary compassion to those genuinely in flux.

Not everyone’s worth debating with, of course. But that also doesn’t mean that anyone with an idiot’s opinion is to be discarded, either. Because many times I make a statement where people go, “Anyone who’d have problems with that is an idiot!” and I think Oh, my friend, how I wish you could understand that I was that idiot.

Message ends.


  1. Anonymous Alex
    Jul 24, 2019

    “I’ve come to think . . . .”

    Also, who was it who said something to the effect of if you didn’t used to be worse, that just means you haven’t improved?


  2. DawnW
    Jul 25, 2019

    You are a good person now because you’ve come around. And you were a good person, and an increasingly good person, over time because *you wrestle with things like this.* Honest, goodwill effort counts.

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