Explanations Are Not Excuses

The difference between understanding and justifying

Just the other day I was trying to describe to a friend the process of someone becoming abusive. (I was trying to go into more detail on my piece on the process of abuse.)

I’d barely gotten into my attempt when my friend responded, “Oh, so they’re not to blame, that’s what you’re saying now?”

No, that’s totally not what I was saying. But I get it. We’re very sensitive to the excusing of what’s obviously wrong. And we should be: allowing excuses for wrongdoing only perpetuates it. And, if you’ve had personal experience with it, excusing the offender belittles your pain. The attempt to protect them turns out to be at your expense.


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That wasn’t what I was doing, though.

It’s one thing to try to find reasons why someone’s behaviour is okay, or not so bad. It’s entirely another to try to understand it, even when it doesn’t make sense.

Especially when it doesn’t make sense.

To excuse what a person has done, we must assume their actions can be shown to be not so bad. To explain, we must assume their actions can be shown to be not so random.

Still, why bother explaining what’s obviously wrong? Because, if we know how something comes about, we have a chance at actually stopping it before it’s too late.

Or even before it starts.

So how can you try to explain behaviour you disagree with?

If you decide to focus on explaining here are a few things to keep in mind (not going to go into a lot of detail)…

  1. Facts first. Often people start with the interpretation, and not the event. One person slapped another: the first thing is to determine if that actually happened. Start instead with the why of the slap, though, and you’re already set up to misunderstand the explanation. You can’t find an explanation when you’ve already assumed one.
  2. Assume normalness. This is hard for many people. It’s easy to think, someone who has done something outrageous must not be normal. And maybe they’re not, but think about it for a minute. Once you assume someone’s behaviour is abnormal, what you’re really saying (and you may not realise this just then) is: their behavour is beyond understanding.
  3. Respect the environment. No, I don’t mean look outside the window. (You could, though.) What I mean is, respect how things other than simple will shape human behaviour. You might not like to hear this (many people don’t), but human behaviour isn’t as independent as we like to think. Studies have shown, for instance, that people tend to be less likely to help strangers when we think there are other people around. The common objection to this is, “But we all have the power to choose!” I don’t disagree. I’m just saying, it’s not the only power at work.
  4. Be sensitive. It would be beyond unfair to insist on an explanation to someone who’s been directly hurt by another’s actions. (This might seem super obvious, but it doesn’t hurt to mention it.) Explaining requires distance and a degree of neutrality. It would be mean to demand that of someone still who’s reeling. Plus explanations are little good for pain anyway. (If you doubt this, try explaining a slap to someone whose cheek is still hurting.)
  5. Accept your limitations. Don’t forget, not everything is explainable now. Or ever. Some explanations require more distance than you think, and you might not understand until more time has passed. Some explanations will demand more knowledge than you have at the moment. Some explanations will take someone else to help you appreciate. And some explanations may remain forever simply beyond you. And that’s okay too.

To be clear, it’s perfectly fine, after coming to an explanation (or while trying to), to go ahead and demand consequences for the action in question.

The whole point was not to excuse it, after all.

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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