New fashions in exculpation


When fashion writers comment on the new styles of the new season, then don’t stop to call their readers’ attention to the fact that all these people have chosen to wear clothes.  They take that for granted and so do we.  In this essay, I am going to survey the current styles of exculpation. [1]  I am not going to stop to call anyone’s attention to the fact that people who are caught in a scandal try to shift the attention and the blame to others.  I take that for granted and so do you.

But in exculpation, as in haute couture, there are fashions; new ways of catching andExculpation 1 deflecting attention and I would like to look at the recent troubles of the former (but only recently) governor of Missouri, Eric Greitens.

He was caught in a nasty sex scandal.  Got it.  A lot of powerful people come, after a while, to think that everyone should accede to their preferences.  In addition, there are apparently a lot of women who get drunk on the power and the presence of that kind of man and agree to do things they would not do when they were sober.  Got it.

But if you were such a man—the New York Times article called him “chiseled and charismatic”—and you got caught, what would you do to place the attention and the blame somewhere else?  And how would you deal with the unavoidable residual blame?  My idea here is that ways of doing this vary from one time and place to another just as clothing styles do and I would like to take a look at this season’s fashions in exculpation.

Here’s the first one.

Defiant but somber, Mr. Greitens, who was voted into office in 2016, insisted that he had committed no crimes or “any offense worthy of this treatment.”

Crimes, yes.  But the punishment is more severe than this particular crime deserves.  Right away we wonder just how severe a punishment he thinks his “crime” deserves and whether the really thinks that is a crime.

And then.

He described “legal harassment of colleagues, friends and campaign workers” and said “it’s clear that for the forces that oppose us that there is no end in sight.”

This a significant and very helpful shift of focus.  It is not about “us,” is about “them.”  And those people—“them”—a given no identity at all except by their opposition to Gov. Greitens.

All this harassment is the result of something the governor did, apparently.  We don’t businessman hiding face not my faultlearn what it was from any of the statements he is making.  Which is interesting because Greitens and his wife described “the situation” as “a deeply personal mistake.”

“Personal” rather than what?  Rather than public, I think.  “Eric” might have exercised poor judgment, but “the Governor” is not involved in this in any way.  This is a crisis in our marriage, but it is none of the public’s business.

Besides which, if we are going to talk about personal characteristics, let’s talk about how “Eric” responded to this “situation.”  He “took responsibility”—for what, the statement does not say—and we (Mrs. and Mrs Greitens, not the Governor and the First Lady) dealt with this.

How did they deal with it?  “Together, honestly, and privately.”  All three.  Notice how nicely they group together.  This response is everything that the Governor’s offense was not.  The Governor had an affair with “his former hairdresser.”  This is flagrantly “not together” so far as his marriage with his wife is concerned.  And however “honest” the pair might be about dealing with what the governor had done, there is nothing at all honest about the affair.  And the couple dealt with this event “privately,” as well but, of course, the extraordinary measures the governor took to keep this affair private, show what “privately” means about the actions themselves.

And finally, from his resignation speech.

“I know, and people of good faith know, that I am not perfect.

This functions as an admission of some flaw in today’s political culture, but it is hard to see just how it could.  The “not perfect” defense imagines a scale like this  

 Screen Shot 2018-05-30 at 8.40.42 AM.png

This is obviously a very convenient scale.  No one fits the specifically named right end of the scale and everyone fits on the rest of the scale.  The effect of the “not perfect” ploy is to deny any real difference between what the governor did and what everyone else does.

A Primer

So if I were writing a primer for Exculpation 101, I would be delighted to have this come along as a case.  You get caught in the most sordid kind of sex controversy and you don’t want to get blamed at all.  You certainly don’t want to get impeached.  So what do you do?

First, you deny it for as long as you can.  That includes preventing others with certain knowledge and/or evidence from saying what occurred.  Gov. Greitens’ ploy was to threaten to release an embarrassing photograph.  Pres. Trump’s was to offer hush money.  Two kinds of strategies with the same goal.  So far, neither seems to be working all that well.

Failing to deny it, you try to contain it.  This is a private matter, just between my wife and me.  We have resolved our differences so the issue, being only private, is done.  People who continue to beat the drums are making public what ought to be only private.  This is the “Eric” v. “the Governor” dimension.

At the same time, you attack the people who are attacking you.  These brutes are causing untold grief to your professional associates and to your family.  The grief they are causing is unrelated, of course, to any misdeeds of Gov. Greitens; they relate only to the viciousness of the opponents.

exculpation 5And at the same time, you trumpet the governor’s virtues.  These virtues, it goes without saying, do not have to do with the affair itself or the threats that accompanied it.  They have to do with how well the governor is taking it.  That is where “together” (he’s just another husband) [2] and “private” (it’s none of the public’s business) and “honestly” (after all those months of lies, we are talking candidly about what to do) come in.  These are all virtues.  At least the names all sound virtuous.

Who would want to bring a vice charge against the private choices of such a nice guy?  And to hurt the feeling of his wife?  Really!

And finally, you do the “I’m not perfect” ploy as if that were the standard to which we wanted to hold public officials.  But, of course, “perfect” is not the standard.  On the other hand egregiously tawdry adultery isn’t any useful part of the campaign either, not for a rising star in the Republican party.

So if you are thinking of teaching a course or even just a module on Exculpation, let me offer you this case.  It’s a classic of most of the best moves.

[1]  An obvious word, given that culpa = guilt or blame (as in mea culpa) and that the prefix ex- means what it always means.  Obvious, but not used as much as it deserves to be used.

[2]  Very near the end of A Guide for the Married Man, Walter Matthau is trying to talk his way out of the affair he halfheartedly set up.  “Don’t you want a husband,” he asks the attractive woman who looks ready to start taking her clothes off.  “I have a husband,” she replies.  “No, no,” Matthau responds, “I mean one of your own.”  I loved that.  It was good comedy.  On he other hand, who “has” a husband who is a public figure conducting what is supposed to be a very private affair, is a relevant question.  And the husband had definitely been had.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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