The Need for Self-Vetting

A UC Berkeley scholar recently disclosed that she was not Native American after all. All her life she believed that she had some Native ancestry because she had been told so. Now she learned otherwise. Deeply apologetic, she acknowledged the hurt that such a claim causes indigenous people.

It is not only people who are knowingly lying who need to be vetted. We may believe something to be true about ourselves but not know it as a fact. Family lore is not always factual, nor is self-lore. Why make claims about oneself or one’s family if you don’t actually know them to be true, haven’t done the research to verify them? Many reasons. We want to believe it and vetting is hard work being two.

At a high school reunion, I wanted to share memories with a woman who had been in a one act play contest with me and another male actor. She told me I was mistaken, that she was not in that play and I must be confusing her with someone else. She seemed quite certain, which meant that my vivid memory would be inexplicably faculty.

I went and got the third actor and asked him in front of her who was in that play. He named her. She had been certain that I was wrong. But certainty, it turns out, is only a feeling. It is not an indicator that we are right. This is an important lesson on the short list of how to live. Don’t trust feelings of certainty. Vet anyway. My classmate could have said simply that she didn’t remember being in the play instead of asserting that she wasn’t.

Believing something and knowing it are not the same. To stick with what we have verified makes life a lot less interesting, but more ethical. No speculation, no conjecture, no just passing along what we have been told.

In some contexts, credibility is crucial. “I’ve never seen this document before.” “Well, you signed that you read it and agreed to follow it.” Why not simply, “I don’t remember reading this document. Let me check it out.”

This realization opens up a whole new practice of vetting ourselves, even the formative things we think we remember but may not be factual. The result may be a real trimming down of the self that we carry and present to ourselves and others. This includes stating our relationship to what we are saying. For example, “My mother told me that as a child I…, but I have no recollection of that myself.” Or, as some people do, “All I know is that is how I remember it.” That is the best we can do until we do what we can to vet it.