Robert Whale can be reached at

Robert Whale can be reached at

If you're right, and you know it, then read this | Whale's Tales

As the poet Theodore Roethke once wrote: “In a dark time the eye begins to see…”

We learn many of our most important lessons early in life.

Like, look both ways before you cross the street, don’t put your hand on a hot burner, and don’t bounce that lamp off your brother’s bean.

The lessons accumulate as we roll along through life. For instance, the axiom that says it’s best to delay judgment until we know the facts.

I was reminded of this recently when I re-watched the 1943 film “The Ox-Bow Incident.” The film begins when two cowboys ride into a Western town just as news arrives that a local rancher has been murdered and his cattle stolen.

Townfolk, the cowboys, and cowboys from other ranches respond by forming a posse to catch the bad guys. They find three men in possession of the cattle, and in their haste to see justice done, string up innocent men. Only moments after they have hanged those men do they learn that the actual villains had already been caught.

For most of my life, I was like those guys — too quick to pass judgment and over-confident with the little I knew. Don’t know when and where, but at some point I had picked up the foolish notion that I could get, as one man put it, “the world” into my head, and a smug intellectual arrogance to which I was oblivious settled in.

As often happens with human beings, a major life calamity was required to bring this noxious tendency to my awareness so I could begin to shake myself loose from it.

As the poet Theodore Roethke once wrote: “In a dark time the eye begins to see...”

We can see the rampant failure to recognize our limitations in the online responses to terrible events, when enraged people immediately find scapegoats in others they dislike without bothering to gather the most basic understanding of what actually happened.

No, they’ll concede, they weren’t on the scene, they were thousands of miles away. But damn it, they know they’re right, they know who done it, so let’s get this over with and string up the bastard.

When they can’t explain how they know what they know for certain, it becomes apparent that they’re right because they know they’re right. They may not say it, but that’s the subtext. Even when it’s blindingly obvious that all they have is their own opinion, they maintain it is “fact,” typically at the top of of their lungs or in all caps.

It reminds me of what I learned long ago from the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. His theory of cognitive development, which focused on the intellectual development of children, says that throughout most of what he called “the pre-operational stage,” a child’s thinking is self-centered, or egocentric, and the child struggles to understand life from any other perspective than his own. In this stage, the child is very “me, myself, and I-oriented.”

Seems in this country today, we have an awful lot of people stuck in Piaget’s egocentric stage, unwilling and perhaps finally unable merely to consider the possibility that they may be wrong.

This is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, it has flared up in American life before to the destruction of lives, as in the Salem witch trials and the most wretched excesses of McCarthyism.

I can only hope no more people beset by this blindness in our distracted and divided society today turn to the noose, or the swinging torch by moonlight or the back of a hard hand to relieve themselves of the discomfort of having about them others who simply don’t share their opinions.

Robert Whale can be reached at

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