Explanation Yes; Justification No

By Bertell Ollman

One of our biggest problems in trying to account for what happened on Sept. llth is how to keep our explanations from sounding like a justification. Most of us will already have experienced this sleight of hand, and once it happens there is little chance of convincing your listeners of anything. Worse, many of them will now think of you as being on the side of those who perpetrated this horror and treat you accordingly. This is enough to keep a lot of people silent, who would otherwise be raising some much needed questions.

What is the mechanism at work here? And what can we do to avoid this misunderstanding, or, at least, to minimize its effects? Leaving aside the willful twisting of what we have to say by those who don't want other people to hear it, there would appear to be two main reasons for our difficulty. First, most people are hurting badly right now and are understandably very angry at the people who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They have a great emotional need to express these feelings and to hear from others who feel the same. It is largely a way of establishing a sense of solidarity with the victims of this terrible tragedy. Any attempt to broach the subject of why the attack took place that bypasses the silent cry for emotional bonding allows these strong feelings to interfere with the reception of what you are trying to say, and, in the worst of cases, to render you suspect as an insensitive outsider who is trying to justify what happened. So, BEFORE wading into any social-political explanation of events, we must make sure that our audience knows that we share their pain and anger.

Second, as for the relation between explanation and justification, it must be admitted that one can sound a lot like the other. In ordinary life, for example, an explanation of an event is often undertaken in order to arrive at a judgement of the persons involved in it. Many people tend to listen to explanations as they would to a court case leading up to a verdict of guilt or innocence. In common parlance, too, to say that some act is "understandable" is at least to suggest that the people who did it were acting rationally, that is from reasons we can uncover, and that what they did, therefore, cannot be rejected out of hand. I am not saying that this is what follows from understanding any event, but rather that calling it "understandable" often suggests just this to others. My guess is that this is what lies behind the hostility of many people for any attempt to try to explain the Holocaust.

Given the slippery slope on which the connection between explanation and justification lies, I am afraid there will always be some who mistake any effort to explain the bombings as collusion with the enemy. Still, a lot can be done to minimize this danger. We can, for example, make explicit the sharp distinction laid out above between explanation and justification. We should then reverse the usual procedure of leaving judgement for last by leading with a strong statement condemning without any qualification the murder and the murderers of so many innocent people. Having issued our judgement of the event at the start, far fewer people are likely to misunderstand our search for an explanation as an indirect defense of the perpetrators.

Next, in making the transition to explanation, it is important to stress why this step is so important. If condemning the bombings as murder of innocent people is all we need in order to punish the guilty parties, only an adequate understanding of why it happened will enable us to bring about the changes necessary to ensure that it will not happen again. Judgements are oriented toward the past. They are attempts to categorize things in the past so we know where to place them in our thinking about the present. However, without an accompanying explanation, judgements are poor guides to developing policies for the future. Explanations, on the other hand, are oriented toward the future. They are attempts to understand what went wrong in the past so that changes can be made and the same mistakes are not repeated. Today, as we know, most Americans have accepted policies based largely on their judgement of WHAT happened in New York and Washington (laced with a heavy dose of emotions) rather than on any reasonal explanation of WHY it happened. With the main causes of the tragedy untouched because unexamined, the results of these policies are likely to prove catastrophic.

Is there still a chance to halt this descent into hell by - as we said in an earlier crisis - "speaking truth to power"? Only if we find a way of making the "truth" digestible, and this means, above all else, keeping our explanations from sounding like justifications. In pursuit of this end, I have suggested - l) sharing the pain and anger of our audience before we do anything else; 2) distinguishing explanation as sharply as possible from justification; 3) presenting our condemnation, our harsh judgement, of what happened before we set out to explain it; and 4) when we begin our explanations, emphasizing the fact that only by understanding WHY this terrible event occurred, only by finding its actual causes, will we be in a position to construct a future that gives us the peace and security we all crave.

There is still a fifth step worth taking before launching into our explanations proper, and that can be posed in a couple of simple questions: Why has our Government paid so little attention to WHY this event occurred, and restricted its few answers to talk of evil and the craziness and jealousy of the parties involved? Is there something in its own practises, past and present, far from the metaphysics and the pop psychology that we have been offered, that it is trying to hide? Once we have established the importance of looking for serious explanations, and once we have cleared up the static that interferes with people hearing any serious explanation, the contribution, past and present, of our own Government to this disaster will begin to receive the widespread scrutiny it so richly deserves.

Having tried to frame some of the discussion that is getting underway, I am now content to leave the rest to readers in the belief that the "facts" in this case argue so eloquently in favor of peace that - if only they could be heard, and heard properly - only Bush, Sharon and perhaps Bin Laden would favor war.

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