Distortions (Part 1 of Reflections on Truth & Belief)

I’ve been a humane educator for over twenty years, and have given hundreds of presentations to students. In the early years of my career, I always gave teachers an evaluation form to complete so that I could improve my presentations. Often a teacher would have her or his class write letters to me after a talk. Some of these have found their way into my books because they’ve been such a testament to the power of humane education to inspire positive changes and actions in young people’s lives.

But this week, I had a new experience in feedback. I gave a couple of presentations at colleges in Portland, Oregon, a few of weeks ago. It turned out that the reason why a group of students was taking copious notes the whole time was because they were receiving extra credit from their economics professor for attending and reflecting upon my MOGO talk. The professor shared the student reflections (names removed) with the organizer of my talks who, with permission, shared them with me. This was the first time I had had the opportunity to read reflections, that were not written to me, from college students about a presentation of mine. In other words, they would probably be the most honest accounts I’d ever read from young adults.

Happily for me, they were really positive, which made my day; but, what struck me, and what I want to write about here, was how many factual errors there were. There were many reflections that included descriptions of things that I hadn’t said. I’ve been guilty of this, too. Even as we take notes, we are missing words and phrases and filtering what we hear through our assumptions and beliefs. We may then disseminate “facts” that are misunderstandings or misinterpretations of what we heard.

Many of us have played the game "Telephone," in which a group stands in a circle and one person whispers a phrase to the next and the phrase gets passed around the circle until, by the end, the phrase is often incomprehensible and has little in common with the original sentence. We think we heard it perfectly and passed it along perfectly, but somewhere along the way it got distorted. Sometimes we know we didn’t hear it quite right, but we (lazily?) fail to pursue the true statement. Sometimes the phrase gets distorted by one or two people; sometimes the distortions happened incrementally. Certainly, some of us hear and attend better than others, but none of us is immune from misunderstanding, mishearing, and misapprehending.

Last year I misquoted a well known environmental advocate and author. Turns out that I had taken careful notes, but I had not clearly delineated this speaker from the one that followed, and I thought my notes from the latter came from the former. My quotes were accurate, but I attributed one to the wrong person. Fortunately, the woman I misquoted saw my blog post and contacted me right away so that I could fix my error.

This is one of the reasons I tell my students – including this group in Portland – not to believe me. Find out for yourself. How much information is distorted along the road to your ears and eyes? How many small errors do we each make that amount to significant mistakes in understanding? We must listen with open minds and not trust what we hear as “truth” until we’ve ascertained its validity for ourselves.

~ Zoe Weil
Author of Most Good, Least Harm and Above All, Be Kind

Image courtesy of costi.

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