Monday, March 10, 2008

Rhetoric: Explanation vs Justification

People frequently make the mistake of thinking that, by explaining why someone did something, you are therefore also defending what they did as being appropriate.

But explaining behavior is different from justifying it. For instance, we can explain why Hitler had millions of Jews executed in concentration camps: he viewed them as dangerous, he viewed them as less than human, he blamed them for Germany's troubles, etc. Accepting this explanation, though, in no way involves accepting what Hitler did as justified or acceptable. And that, of course, stems from the fact that Hitler acting on these beliefs -- that Jews are dangerous, are less than human, are the source of Germany's troubles, etc. -- doesn't mean that these beliefs are true, or that we have to think they are true (even though Hitler clearly did).

More generally, explaining why someone commits a crime or some other immoral act need not imply that you are justifying it. For instance, if someone intentionally scratches my car, and I kill them in response, the explanation for what I did was that I was defying their mistreatment of me (defiance). But that, of course, isn't a justification for what I did, because -- even though what they did to me was unjust -- my reaction to it is wildly out of proportion.

(Incidentally, this is the source of much of the trouble in the world: people responding to an injustice in a manner that is wildly out of proportion to what was done to them.)

So, to summarize, it is wrong to accuse someone who is explaining immoral behavior of justifying it. Explanation and justification are two different activities.

"I don't think Sarah Palin signed up with Trump because he's conservative. I don't think Sarah Palin's doing what she's doing to advance conservatism here. I don't want to put words in her mouth, and this is probably gonna be misunderstood. But what has -- I don't know. In trying to explain -- and I'm not trying to justify anything. I'm just trying to explain to you people, and I touched on this yesterday, there are a lot of people that tried to do great damage to Sarah Palin, and some of them are Republicans, and some of them call themselves conservatives."
-- Pundit Rush Limbaugh, January 21, 2016, discussing former Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK) and her endorsement of Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.

Comment: Limbaugh is drawing a distinction between explanation and justification.

5:30 P.M. EST - Dr. Michael Welner - A forensic psychiatrist who is spearheading landmark research to develop a societal standard of evil in crime, which people can participate in Joining him is Dr. Ron Martinelli, Retired Police Officer, Forensic Legal Analyst, Certified Medical Investigator. Martinelli directs the nation’s only civilian Forensic Death Investigations and Independent Review Team says, "Guns don’t kill people; behavior kills people. A firearm in the hands of a responsible gun owner at UCC could have saved lives."

The two will analyze the mind and motives of the Umpqua Community College killer.

Welner says the killer “...admired that he could get the attention from killing alone. And by saying something as callous as ‘pray, because you’re about to be meet your maker...He admired that he could get the attention from killing alone.”
-- Program notes from the October 2, 2015, Sean Hannity radio program.

Comment: The discussion outlined above involves an attempt to explain – but not justify – the behavior of the Umpqua Community College shooter.

"This is what my friend who lost his son in 9/11 doesn't understand. He didn't understand when the State Department convened a seminar within the first month asking, "Why do they hate us? What have we done to make them so mad at us?" He doesn't understand. None of that matters! There's nothing we could have done that justified what they did, so why the hell have a seminar about it?"
-- Pundit Rush Limbaugh, September 11, 2015.

Comment: Limbaugh is conflating explanation and justification. Explaining someone's behavior is not the same as defending or justifying it.

"And then I think the last thing that — this is maybe not something I’ve learned but has been confirmed — even with your enemies, even with your adversaries, I do think that you have to have the capacity to put yourself occasionally in their shoes, and if you look at Iranian history, the fact is that we had some involvement with overthrowing a democratically elected regime in Iran. We have had in the past supported Saddam Hussein when we know he used chemical weapons in the war between Iran and Iraq, and so, as a consequence, they have their own security concerns, their own narrative. It may not be one we agree with. It in no way rationalizes the kinds of sponsorship from terrorism or destabilizing activities that they engage in, but I think that when we are able to see their country and their culture in specific terms, historical terms, as opposed to just applying a broad brush, that’s when you have the possibility at least of some movement."
-- President Barack Obama, July 14, 2015, during interview with Thomas Friedman of The New York Times.

Comment: Obama is explaining, but not justifying, the behavior of the Iranian government.

"What we’ve long understood, though, is that some communities have consistently had the odds stacked against them. That’s true of rural communities with chronic poverty. That’s true of some manufacturing communities that suffered after the plants they depended on closed their doors. It’s true of some suburbs and inner cities, where jobs can be hard to find and harder to get to. That sense of unfairness and powerlessness has helped to fuel the kind of unrest that we’ve seen in places like Baltimore, Ferguson, and New York. It has many causes -- from a basic lack of opportunity to groups feeling unfairly targeted by police – which means there’s no single solution. But there are many that could make a different and could help. And we have to do everything in our power to make this country’s promise real for everyone willing to work for it."
-- President Barack Obama, May 16, 2015, during the weekly presidential address.

Comment: Obama is explaining unrest, but not justifying it.

"We're afraid of the police of what they can do and the power that we think that they wield as far as if something happens to me from a police officer, will it be covered up? Will there be justice for me, whatever? With the cops, we don't live in these neighborhoods, we just know what we see on television or what other people have told us. And we're just as frightened as these people, you know, but we have guns. And when you deal with human nature, human nature, not just this is an officer who's dealing with things professionally, he's still a human being. And when that fear kicks in, you never know what can happen. I just made an analogy the other day about how someone can tap you on the shoulder, scare the mess out of you and your first reaction is to turn and you might smack them. Imagine if you have a gun in your hand? It's the same thing. Now, With this thing that happened in Ferguson just now with the two officers, sad, very sad. I hate to say that that FBI report kind of played into this and these things shouldn't be happening, but you reap what you sow in a sense. If that FBI report would have never came out and the scandal or whatever and how they're basically giving people -- paying the city by giving people tickets and things like that. That is incredibly insane but we knew this already, this is common knowledge in the ghetto. When they come in the hood -- I mean, guys used to sit out and drink beer in public, stuff like that, never a problem at times. But when they are trying to make quotas everybody sticks it in their pocket."
-- Rapper Method Man, posted March 13, 2015. His remarks concerned protests on March 13, 2015, against the Ferguson, MO, police department (which has been cited for racial discrimination by the federal government), protests in which two police officers were shot.

Comment: With the phrase, "you reap what you sow", Method Man seems to be explaining that someone (though it's not clear who) "brought it on themselves". Is he referring to the officers who were shot, or law enforcement in general, or someone or something else?

"I think that what had been happening in Ferguson was oppressive and objectionable and was worthy of protest. But there was no excuse for criminal acts. And whoever fired those shots shouldn't detract from the issue. They're criminals, they need to be arrested. … What we have to make sure of is, is that the folks who disregard and disrespect the other side, people who resort to violence that they're marginalized … But they're not the majority. In the same way that you can't generalize about police officers who do an extraordinarily tough job, overwhelmingly they do it professionally. You can't generalize about protesters who, it turns out, had some very legitimate grievances. The Justice Department report showed they were being stopped -- African-Americans were being stopped disproportionately, mainly so the city could raise money, even though these were unjust."
-- President Barack Obama, March 12, 2015, on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live. His remarks concerned protests that day against the Ferguson, MO, police department (which has been cited for racial discrimination by the federal government), protests in which two police officers were shot.

Comment: Obama is explaining the protests and anger at police, but not justifying the violence against the police. He is also saying that the violence against the police shouldn't detract – i.e., "distract"? – from the misbehavior of the police department.

"Of course, violence is never justified. But seen in this context – amid a highly toxic environment, defined by mistrust and resentment, stoked by years of bad feelings, and spurred by illegal and misguided practices – it is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg."
-- Attorney General Eric Holder, March 4, 2015, in a report on the police department of Ferguson, MO.

Comment: Holder is explaining the violent protests after the shooting of Michael Brown, but not justifying them.

So, yeah, Kerry has basically set 'em up, Obama set 'em up for the acquisition, if they can pull it off, of a nuclear weapon in ten years. … Yeah. I'm at a loss here. Actually I'm not at a loss. I know exactly, folks, I know exactly why they're doing this. It doesn't make any sense. I'm just telling I know exactly why they're doing it. Obama's worldview is there's no such thing as American exceptionalism. We're not special except in our own minds, just as every other country thinks its special in its own mind, but there's nothing essentially about us better than anybody else. That's a myth. And the idea that we get to determine which nations get nuclear weapons, who the hell are we? We don't have that right, and we never have had, as far as Obama's concerned. That's an example of our imperialism. Us, telling the Iranians, they're just good Muslims, they can't have their own bomb? What right to we have? That's his worldview on this and John Kerry's and every other one of them.
-- Pundit Rush Limbaugh, February 24, 2015, concerning a deal being negotiated between the US and Iran (and others) regarding Iran's nuclear program. US Secretary of State John Kerry, a member of President Barack Obama's cabinet, is part of the negotiations.

Comment: In explaining the move to allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons (assuming that the deal actually allows that), is Limbaugh justifying what Obama is doing? Or is explaining different from justifying?

Liberals know they are full of it; they just think the rest of us are as foolish as the welfare-guzzling mouth-breathers who vote for them. It’s time for the lies to stop. Liberals, stop lying about the weather. There is no climate change crisis. Whatever changes our climate is undergoing are part and parcel of the natural processes that have been going on since the Earth was formed. … Liberals, stop lying about our war with radical Muslims. This bloodshed isn’t “random.” This isn’t about “violent extremism.” Mass enslavement, mutilation and murder isn’t “workplace violence,” and these semi-human freaks aren’t going to stop if someone hands them a mop, bucket and paycheck. We are at war – war – with radical Islam, and we need to end the lies, the equivocation and dissembling and speak the truth. Our enemies think they are Muslims, and they think the Koran commands their actions. This isn’t about theology – whether their version of Islam is a misunderstanding or misinterpretation is utterly irrelevant. They think they’re pious Muslims even if we, as well as most of the world’s Muslims, disagree. … Well, here’s a conservative who says it’s critical to understand the radical Muslims. We need to fully appreciate how they think, their goals, their ideas, their feelings. Understanding them will help us more effectively hunt down and kill them. … Liberals, stop lying about illegal aliens. They aren’t all hardworking and they aren’t all here because they love America and have dreams and stuff. Some are criminals. Some are bums. None were invited. Their problems are a result of their choices. We owe them nothing. Want out of the shadows? Go home. … Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton. Lena Dunham. Jon Gruber. That woman with the glasses who thinks we should carpet bomb ISIS with want ads. All liberals. All liars. Liberals, stop lying about everything.
-- Pundit Kurt Schlichter, February 23, 2015.

Comment: Schlichter references a lot of different "liberal" words and deeds, too many for me to cover all of what he's said, but here are a few points: first, "welfare-guzzling mouth-breathers" is simply name-calling. It's a slur. Second, is it really true that ALL liberals believe these things? Isn't that a hasty generalization (along the same lines as "all illegal aliens are hard-working"), one that means Schlichter himself is lying? Third, Schlichter gives no evidence for the claim that global warming is natural, and – even if it is – is it really unreasonable to the point of being a lie for someone to believe global warming is man-made? Fourth, notice that Schlichter points out that we need to understand (though not justify) terrorism, and that noting the Islamic affiliation of many terrorists is a key part of understanding them (which will in turn help us stop them). Finally, Schlichter is distorting the words of State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf ("That woman with the glasses who thinks we should carpet bomb ISIS with want ads."), using the "silver bullet" caricature. Harf never said jobs were all that was needed to defeat ISIS, in fact she clearly spelled out that military force (among other things) would be used as well.

"You want to know how to take all the wind out of the sails of the Sovereign Citizens? Obey the Constitution."
-- Pundit Glenn Beck, February 23, 2015. The Sovereign Citizen movement believes that much of the federal government is intrusive and acting beyond what the United States Constitution allows. Prior to Beck's remarks, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had cited the movement as being a major domestic terrorism threat.

Comment: Notice that Beck is suggesting an explanation for the (sometimes violent) actions of members of the Sovereign Citizen movement: they have a grievance, in that they believe that the Constitution is being disobeyed in a way that reduces our freedoms. While Beck agrees with that grievance, he did not justify their violent actions. Explaining is not justifying, and saying that someone has a grievance (even a legitimate one) is not the same as defending anything they do in the name of that grievance.

Many were left flat-footed and with jaws dropped after the president’s remarks at the recent National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, where he let the Islamic terrorists know that he is keeping their actions in context. Obama felt compelled to equate today’s Islamic terrorist butchers to the Christian Crusaders of 900 years ago. It was just another example of how the president appears willing to try to understand — if not justify — the actions of those who hate America. When the president is slow to condemn our enemies, it raises doubts about what he really thinks of their case against America.
-- Pundit Ed Rogers, February 23, 2015. Rogers is referring to remarks made by President Barack Obama in his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5, 2015.

Comment: First, Obama didn't equate (or, "compare") today's Islamic terrorists with the Christian Crusaders: rather, he said that if the former violence shows that Islam is fundamentally violent, then the latter violence proves the same about Christianity. So Rogers' accusation is a distortion. Second, trying to understand terrorist acts against America can simply be an effort to explain and predict terrorism, and need not be the same as justifying terrorism. Explaining is not the same as justifying., and Rogers is demonizing Obama to suggest otherwise. (Also, isn't pointing out the Islamic affiliation of many terrorists – as Rogers does – an effort to explain, understand, and/or predict terrorist acts, yet without justifying them?)

BORGER: … we have asked lots of potential presidential candidates this week about Rudy Giuliani's comments. Some of them have disowned them, for example, Jeb Bush. Some of them, like Scott Walker, refused to comment. Yesterday, he told "The Washington Post" he wasn't sure if the president was a Christian. And then his press secretary had to clean that up a little bit. Don't you think Republican presidential candidates, who are blindsided by this, I admit, but don't you think they have to come out there and say what they believe about what Rudy Giuliani said directly? You need to do that?

PATAKI: I think -- I think, when you're asked the question, you have to answer it.


PATAKI: Yes, I think what he said was wrong. But I am -- I think it was wrong. But what I understand is that Rudy and I saw the horrible consequences of looking the other way because radical Islamic terror was thousands of miles across the world. And we saw the thousands of people, many of whom both of us knew, die that day. And we saw the courage with which Americans and New Yorkers responded. And it's deep in our bloods. And when we look today and we see them have training camps, we see them have recruiting centers, we see them have social media capability...

BORGER: Right.

PATAKI: ... and our own homeland security secretary coming on and saying we have to use extreme caution going to a mall here, and we have very weak leadership from Washington, I can understand how you get very upset about that. I get upset about it as well.
-- Former Gov. George Pataki (R-NY), February 22, 2015, during an interview with CNN's Gloria Borger. The discussion concerned former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's comments the previous week that President Barack Obama didn't love the country.

Comment: Pataki is not evading the question about Giuliani's comments. He is explaining Giuliani's behavior, but explaining is not justifying.

KIKI: You know, Herb, the saddest day of my life was the day when John Hinckley missed.

[Audience applause.]

If I'd'a had the strength, I'd'a gone to Washington, DC, and shot that son of a bitch myself. But I didn't. I was tired.

[Audience laughter.]

And now we've got an even bigger son of a bitch down there, don't we, Herb?

[Audience applause.]

So, uh, if any of you have the strength, you know –

HERB: [expressing disapproval]

KIKI: Be my guest. What? Oh, yeah, you're right. Listen: don't tell anyone I said that.

[Audience laughter.]

I don't want them reopening my FBI file again. But you know it's funny, Herb, how things go 'round, come around, go around. And lately, you know, when was it, a couple months ago that Reagan, he went and, you know, died, praise the – you know, Hallelujah! You know, that was a happy day. That was a happy day, Herb. And you know, all you saw on television was "the legacy, the legacy, the legacy". How many people have died of AIDS since the early 1980s, Herb? Still dying? That's the legacy!

[Audience applause.]

I hold that son of a bitch responsible for every AIDS death that has ever happened in this country and in this world. That's the legacy.
-- Justin Vivian Bond in the persona of "Kiki DuRane", September 19, 2004, (recorded on the album, Kiki and Herb Will Die for You: Live at Carnegie Hall). Bond was referring to John Hinckley Jr., who on March 30, 1981, attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. Reagan survived the attack (he died on June 5, 2004), and Hinckley was diagnosed with mental illness. President George W. Bush was president at the time of Bond's remarks.

Comment: This is violent rhetoric in the context of a comedy routine, though it's far from clear that Bond's words are meant to be taken comedically. Bond explains (more, justifies?) the rhetoric against Reagan on the grounds of Reagan's policies towards AIDS, which many (like Bond) have criticized, while others have defended.

(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)

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