In My Own Defense

four chess knights

Michael believes there are four defenses people use to justify their wrongdoings, both to themselves and others. He calls these the Four Horsemen of Justification. He’s a pain in my ass.

Anyway, according to his theory, sometimes a single defense is used; other times, two or more. But everyone everywhere uses the same four defenses. They are:

  • Deflect the blame
  • Defend your character
  • Minimize the wrong
  • Attack the accuser
The reference is a tad hyperbolic.

The reference is a tad hyperbolic.

When I violate my own food policies—let’s say I’ve “accidentally” eaten soup made with chicken broth or had a bite of someone’s cheeseburger—here’s how the horsemen gallop across my mind:

  • Deflect the blame: “The evil food system in this country created this situation, and I’m powerless against the force of agribusiness.”
  • Defend your character. I’m a big fan of this one; it’s quite versatile: “I do plenty of socially/environmentally responsible things,” “It would have been thrown out if I didn’t eat it and I can’t stand to see food go to waste,” “I’m doing the best I can!” “I worked really hard today and I’m tired of thinking about this stuff. Isn’t life hard enough without such restrictions on simple pleasures?”
  • Minimize the wrong: “One burger is a drop in the bucket,” “One person can’t change anything anyway,” “If I didn’t actually pay for it, I’m not supporting the system.”
  • Attack the accuser: I’m usually my own harshest critic, but if Michael points out a misstep, I might think, “Well, you’re wearing leather shoes, so where do you draw the line?”

Whenever I’m trying to defend myself in one of these ways and Michael rolls out his trusty theory, I always want to shout, pouty-teenager-style, “Fine, here’s a fifth: I know it’s wrong, and I don’t care!” I don’t bother, though, because Michael will just shake his head and say, “You’re minimizing the wrong.”

8 thoughts on “In My Own Defense

  1. There’s one Michael leaves out: defaming your character. As in “You know why I did it? Because I’m A BAD PERSON, that’s why. Now leave me alone.”
    This has worked for me.

  2. Mickle: Not to be a pain in the ass, but defaming your character is the same as minimizing the wrong. You’re saying that as an avowed bad person (a person who does what he wants simply because he wants, regardless of anything or anyone else), you’re beyond the reach of morality. I think this actually “works” if you truly are a bad person (i.e., a sociopath). But a sociopath doesn’t need to defend his wrongdoing, since he cannot conceive of such a thing.

    However, since you’re not a sociopath, what you’re really doing is claiming, falsely, that morality doesn’t apply to you. In other words, you’re minimizing the wrong — down to nothing in this case.

    Still, I do see the power in your approach. You go straight for the core underlying assumption. Take that out and the whole structure collapses.

  3. Michael. When the scorpion was asked why he stung the frog mid-way across the river, dooming them both to drown, he said “Because I’m a scorpion. It’s my nature.”

    Nowhere in his defense did the scorpion attempt to minimize his murder/suicide, “down to nothing” or otherwise. The beauty of the fable is we really believe the scorpion when he says he wants to get across the river, and we also believe him to be, like other living things, desirous of life. So when he stings the frog he knows he’s doing something very, very wrong. And his defense, such as it is, is not that “it’s okay” or that “it’s nothing”, but that “it just is.”

    This, by the way, is my defense when I eat bratwurst.

  4. Mickle. The only reason the scorpion can use the “scorpion defense” is because he’s a scorpion. When humans try it, they end up sounding like pretend scorpions.

    In real life, scorpions do what scorpions have always done, and are guided by nothing but their scorpion nature. Humans have a nature as well, but we also face certain moral constraints.

    This is not an argument against, say, eating bratwurst, but against the idea that since nature is cruel, unforgiving, and selfish, we are free to be the same. Civilization took that freedom from us, and in its place gave us iPhones.

    This, by the way, is my defense whenever I borrow Kama’s iPhone (known in these parts as her “binky”).

  5. Michael, Michael, Michael. A common defense of non-scorpion Bill Clinton in the Lewinsky affair, made not by himself but by his non-scorpion defenders across the nation, was “Hey, it’s Bill Clinton. That’s what Bill Clinton does.” Like the scorpion’s defense, this one — weak as it might be — makes no attempt to diminish the bad behavior; indeed does not address the specific behavior at all. It asks that Clinton be excused not because of his upstanding character, but because of his known history as a cheating lowlife.

    Less public philanderers have been known to make this defense personally. “Hey honey, you know me. I’m a douche. That’s the way it is.” It’s weak, and might make them sound like scorpions, but it’s a defense.

  6. Mickle, Mickle, Mickle… times infinity!

    I agree that “That’s the way it is” is sometimes used as a defense, but I don’t agree that it makes no attempt to minimize the wrong. When used this way, it ascribes bad behavior to bad character, with the implication that a person of such poor character cannot be expected to adhere to certain moral standards. In other words, the person’s innately bad character makes his wrongdoing less wrong.

    Anyway, your Clinton example made me think of the old “Manny being Manny” thing. It’s interesting because when that phrase was used by a Manny Ramirez supporter, the implication was that while Ramirez’s behavior was sometimes wrong, it wasn’t that wrong, and that on the whole, he was worthy of support. Bill Clinton’s defenders meant the same thing. In other words, no one would have dared say anything like “That’s what Bill Clinton does” if Clinton had raped Lewinsky.

  7. But, ah, MB, ALL of the horsemen seek to “minimize the wrong”. When Kama sits down to her kettle of blood sausage and attempts to “deflect the blame”, she is saying, in effect, “You all should THINK LESS of this wrong I am committing because the evil food system in this country created this situation, not myself.” When she “defends her character” she is saying “this wrong doing is LESS WRONG because these blood sausages would have been thrown out if I didn’t eat them and I can’t stand to see food go to waste.” Same is true for attacking the accuser. “This is NOTHING compared to your wearing leather shoes!”

    Every horseman, in the end, seeks to minimize the wrong. The “minimize the wrong” horseman distinguishes itself from the other three, and from “defaming your character”, by doing so directly, by pointing to something integral to the wrong itself, not forces outside it (such as the character of the accuser or of oneself).

    But, really, you should both come to Chicago so we can discuss this in person. Over some nice veal and goat’s head stew.

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