Wednesday, September 10, 2008



Explanations reflect power relationships. Every day, people are called upon to explain their actions to others, usually under an assumption that the person has done wrong. Explanations involve two parties: (1) The party demanding an explanation; and (2) the party offering the explanation. Generally, the party demanding the explanation occupies a superior position over the party offering the explanation. For example, parents demand explanations from their children, teachers demand explanations from their students, officers demand explanations from their soldiers, employers demand explanations from their employees, judges demands explanations from lawyers and prosecutors demand explanations from accused criminals. In every case, the party offering the explanation stands under the scrutiny and authority of the party demanding the explanation. The superior party demands the explanation in order to better understand what the inferior party did at some past time. But the superior party usually also has a preconception about the inferior party’s behavior beforehand and frames his questions in a way to corroborate that preconceived version of events. In many cases, the inferior party’s explanation merely provides more details to flesh out an already poor impression in the superior party’s mind about the event. And explanations reflect a perceived right among superior parties to know about what their subordinates do. Conversely, inferior parties have no right to know how their superiors behave in certain situations. Thus, the dynamic behind explanations betrays classic inequality: A strong person exercises a right over the weak person that the weak person does not possess. Worse, exercising that right forces the weak person to expose himself to even more derision that he did before giving the explanation.

Still, explanations do not always arise to serve a cruel purpose. At times, people offer explanations to one another in honest attempts to provide information about their behavior. This occurs between relative equals (friends and lovers come to mind), not in inferior-superior relationships. For example, when a person genuinely cares about how another person thinks about him or her, he will go to great lengths to explain his actual intent when a questionable event threatens to undermine his reputation. If the person does not care about how the other thinks about him or her—and the other occupies no power advantage over him—he would never offer an explanation for a questionable act. After all, no matter the context, offering an explanation involves a quantum of humility and surrender. If there is nothing to be gained from suffering the discomfort inherent in any explanation, why bother? No one willingly assumes discomfort.

In either case, explanations reflect disparities in power. Whenever anyone offers an explanation, he acknowledges himself to be inferior to the person demanding it. Whether or not the party demanding the explanation has a technical right to it—or even can compel it—the party offering it has done something that calls him into question. By explaining himself, he impliedly yields to the other’s judgment and attempts to mitigate it. Few things imply disparities in power more than judgment. And explanations are little more than confessions designed to deflect the pain that flows from others’ judgments.

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