An Explanation is not an Excuse (November 2006)Saturday, 02 April 2011 02:25
Published in Saga Magazine
An Explanation is Not an Excuse
I often hurl criticism, even abuse, at my radio and television. Not that I ever get a reply, but doing so relieves my feelings. What I might say has varied over the years, but ever since the destruction of the Twin Towers what I quite often say is, ‘Can’t you tell the difference between an explanation and an excuse?’ The person to whom I direct this criticism is usually someone who ought to know better. For instance, when, in an open letter, a group of leading Muslims, including three Labour MPs, explained that many young Muslims were greatly angered by the government’s policy in the Middle East, the Foreign Secretary Margaret Becket on the BBC said that any link between government policy and the terror threat was ‘the gravest possible error’, and that this was ‘part of a distorted view of the world, a distorted view of life. Let’s put the blame where it belongs: with people who wantonly take innocent lives.’
The Muslims who wrote the letter were trying to explain why some young Muslims behave as they do. Margaret Becket took their explanation as an excuse for the actions of these young men, and she rejected this excuse. She had mistaken an explanation for an excuse. She ought to know better.
I am very familiar with this kind of situation. If in public I give an explanation as to why some men become paedophiles I can be sure that someone will accuse me of excusing such behaviour. In my explanation I say that the research shows that, while not all children who are sexually abused become paedophiles, all paedophiles have been sexually abused as children. To understand why this is so we need to looks at what happens when a child is treated badly by an adult who should be caring for that child. The child is faced with having to decide between two possible interpretations of what the adult has done. He can interpret the adult’s actions as, ‘I have been wrongfully treated by that bad adult,’ or as, ‘I am bad and deserve what has been done to me by that good adult.’ Children who receive physical punishment have to choose between these two interpretations. Some children who are beaten decide that the adult was wrong to inflict such pain, and resolve not to beat their children in the way that they were beaten. However, choosing such an interpretation means criticising an adult, often a parent, and they have been taught that that is not allowed. As the Commandment states, ‘Honour thy father and mother so that thy days be long in the land.’ Criticise your parents and you’re dead. Hence many children interpret their beatings as, ‘I am a bad child and deserve my punishment from that good adult.’ This is the process whereby children learn to think of themselves as being unacceptable and having to work hard to be good. Unfortunately, some of them also grow up to say, ‘I was beaten as a child and it never did me any harm.’
In order to say that the adult was acting correctly in beating him, the child has to ignore the pain he did suffer, and go on doing that. Whenever we deny our own pain, our ability to perceive the pain that other people suffer diminishes. Children who are sexually abused have to choose between interpreting what happened as a wicked act perpetrated by an adult, or as something that they deserved. Just as some adults tell the child they are beating, ‘I’m only doing this your own good,’ so do paedophiles tell their victims that they are fortunate to have such an experience. This, of course, is a lie, just as beating a child for his own good is a lie, but, if the child interprets the lie as truth, in adulthood he to prove it is true by inflicting on other children what had been inflicted on himself. Thus some of the children who are beaten go on to beat children, and some of the children who are sexually assaulted go on to assault children.
In tracing the line of explanation of why some adults beat children and some sexually assault them I have talked about how children and adults interpret situations. Our interpretations are the prime cause of what we do. You encounter a situation, you interpret it, from your interpretation you decide what do, and you act. This is how we behave all the time. Sometimes our interpretations of a situation are based on sound knowledge, logic and reason, sometimes our interpretations are based on nothing more than fantasy, and mostly they are somewhere between the two, but, whatever our interpretation is, it determines what we do.
Whatever the situation we are faced with, we always have a choice about how we shall interpret it. People often say, ‘I had no alternative but to do so and so,’ but what they should say, ‘Out of all the possible interpretations, this is the only one I found acceptable.’ Even in extreme situations, say, when we’re dying, we’ve got a choice of dying nobly, or of giving our family as much trouble as possible. We can explain why we behaved badly, but our explanation does not excuse our behaviour because we could have chosen other interpretations. Disagreeing with government policy does not lead inevitably to murder.
When Margaret Becket and others confuse an explanation with an excuse they show that they have not grasped the one salient fact of being human. We invest our world with meaning because we continuously interpret whatever happens, and it is our interpretations which determine what we do. If we want to understand ourselves we need to be aware of our own interpretations and see them as interpretations and not as absolute truths. If we want to understand why other people behave as they do, we need to discover how they have interpreted their world. We may deplore the conclusions they have drawn, but we have to accept that what they think is a fact that plays an absolutely central role in what they do. If we want to change this fact of what these people think, there is no point in hurling abuse or bombs at them. Extreme actions result only in more extreme ideas. It is possible to find out what other people think by talking to them as equals, finding out what they want and fear most, and developing our own ideas as we find out about theirs. Doing this requires patience, cunning, and intelligence. Why can’t politicians be clever?