The Art of Confusing Explanation with Excuse

By Horn, Wade F. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 17, 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Art of Confusing Explanation with Excuse

Horn, Wade F., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

So, Hillary Rodham Clinton believes the reason her husband has a taste for the ladies is that when he was very young, barely 4, he was "scarred by abuse" that occurred as a result of his being trapped between his mother and grandmother. Anyway, she adds, "he is a very, very good man." Why, she goes on to ask, should his little indiscretions "negate everything he has done as a husband, a father and a president?"

What's wrong with these statements is that they confuse explanation with excuse. Nowhere in Mrs. Clinton's now infamous interview in Talk magazine did she say her husband's adulterous behavior was reprehensible and that he should be held accountable for the consequences of that behavior. Instead, she merely asked us to understand why his behavior occurred.

When it comes to confusing explanation with excuse, Mrs. Clinton is not alone. Take, for example, the recent riots that occurred at Woodstock '99. Instead of condemning the behavior of the youths who went wild for nearly two days, not only burning the property of others, but raping at least a half-dozen women, the concert organizers urged us to understand the circumstances that led to the riotous behavior (the groups onstage, the high food prices, the hot weather, etc., etc., etc.).

The problem with confusing explanation with excuse is that it lets the perpetrator off the hook. If we can explain why a behavior occurred, the reasoning goes, we can't really hold the person accountable for that behavior, can we? In effect, we are asked to accept that the person didn't do it - the explanation did.

This line of thinking is endemic in much of modern psychology. While studying to become a psychologist, I came under the influence of several professors with a behaviorist bent.

If, these professors contended, we had perfect understanding of an individual's reinforcement history (that is, what kinds of rewards and punishments that individual has experienced in the past in response to a particular behavior), we would be able to predict perfectly the future behavior of the individual.

In other words, if a person commits some reprehensible behavior, it's not really his fault; his reinforcement history made him do it.

Freudian psychology says much the same thing, but with different language. Understand the person's early psychosexual history, many Freudians contend, and you will know all you need to know to understand current (adult) behavior. So, if that person commits adultery, he can't help it. His early psychosexual history made him do it.

Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is not confined to psychology. With the introduction of the social gospel at the end of the 19th century, individuals were no longer seen as responsible for such behaviors as drinking, drug use, debauchery or criminal activity. Rather, the social environment - poverty, overcrowding and the like - was to blame.

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