Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

The Three Hardest Words

During these 10 Days of Repentance, we are urged again and again to turn to others with these three words: “Please Forgive Me” or “I am Sorry.” They are important, of course, but not the most important – or most difficult – to say. There is a different set of words that is far more important and certainly psychologically harder…

When we ask forgiveness, it is something that we have done to another person or limited group of people. In that sense, the damage is limited in scope, even if at times deeply hurtful. However, as we have come to see recently in increasing frequency around the world, there is a “sin” that can cause far greater damage to a larger number of people: disinformation.

First, what’s the difference between “disinformation” and “misinformation”? The latter is a function of error: I thought that something was true, but it turns out that it isn’t. For that, “I am sorry” is appropriate. “Disinformation,” though, is willful misleading of others, when the purveyor should have known – or actually did know – that what was being transmitted was incorrect.

In such a case, “I am sorry” is not enough, because psychological research has proven that once any sort of information is sent out and read/heard by others, they will tend to recall this initial “information” far more than subsequent, contradictory information. This is especially true if the main message from the purveyor is “I am sorry that I sent you this…” – because the emotional “sorry” is recalled a lot more than the revised information itself. It is only when the ensuing message (after the initial disinformation or misinformation) focuses on the text/message and not on the sender, that there’s a real chance of the audience deleting from memory (and action) the former “information” and replacing it with the new, correct information.

So, what are the three hardest words? I WAS WRONG”. Of course, taken by themselves these three words don’t say much, but a person can’t say “I was wrong” without continuing to explain what s/he was wrong about. In other words (pun intended), the correct facts, opinion, idea, etc., naturally have to follow.

Why is it so hard to say these three words? As opposed to “I am sorry” that suggests more of a temporary (perhaps one-time) moral or behavioral “slip,” “I was wrong” strikes at our own cognitive abilities: lower intelligence, lack of analytical ability, slipshod ratiocination, and so on. It is a sign that we didn’t do what humans are supposedly the best at doing: THINKING.

Even worse, in this era of viral social networking, the damage that disinformation can cause is huge. Put another way, the personal issue is completely secondary to the macro-social implications of spreading disinformation. We see this in off-the-cuff comments (e.g., President Trump suggesting injecting bleach to prevent or cure Corona) and even more insidiously, the anti-vaccination rumors and so-called “truth-telling” about a life-and-death issue.

By now it is clear that the anti-vaxxers were completely wrong – about the Coronavirus being “just another flu,” and the “dangers” of the vaccine “based on an unproven technology (mRNA). It was known from the start (for anyone willing to devote just a few minutes “Google research”) that because the new, synthetic mRNA vaccines don’t use actual virus particles, they are safer than the former vaccine technologies that use live or weakened proteins from a real virus. So, whether from ignorance and laziness (misinformation) or to gain some limelight (disinformation), the anti-vaxxers should be using this 10-day “Aseret Yemai Teshuva” period not merely for the usual (and usually perfunctory) “I Am Sorry” missive, but to proclaim loud and clear “I Was Wrong!”

Anything less than that and there can be no real repentance on Yom Kippur, as other ignorant or otherwise unsuspecting people continue to refuse vaccination, remaining a serious health threat to the rest of us.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see:
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