Please stop confusing explaining and justifying

People come in all shapes and sizes, with all kinds of likes and dislikes. Some people (and I’m certainly one of them) like to try to figure out how stuff works. That desire is certainly what led me to be a scientist, and to make a career out of trying to figure out how stuff works. For me, part of this is that I look around and see what appears to be very disorderly world. A bird’s eye view of a city shows people going in all kinds of directions, moving in different ways from here to there, and it looks like chaos. But pull any of those individuals aside, and ask what they’re doing, where they’re going, and they’ll have a story to tell and a reason (maybe not always a good one) that they’re doing what they’re doing. When those individual reasons are all known, the world seems, and feels (to me) more orderly and less chaotic. I crave order in things. That’s just who I am.

So when something horrible happens, I try to find order in that situation. It’s bad enough that the tragedy happened, but without the order, it feels like too much. Some people find this kind of comfort in religion. “It’s all part of God’s plan.” That works for lots of people, and that’s great, but it doesn’t work for me. Still, the comfort that it brings to some, sounds a lot like the comfort that I seek after tragic events.

What I see happening, far too much in my opinion, is that an attempt to explain something horrible is perceived, by some, as a justification for that something horrible. I think this is a misunderstanding. The goal in the explaining is NOT to say that it’s right, or that it should have happened, but instead, the goal is to create some order. Just like the goal of saying “it’s all part of God’s plan” is not to say that it was good that the tragedy happened, or that God is wrong for making/allowing it to happen, but just to provide some comfort in the face of tragedy. In the case of explaining without justifying, it also can give us clues about changes that we might make to prevent it from happening again. To this you might say, “Why should we change? We didn’t do anything wrong.” My response to that is that all we can control is what we do. We can’t control how others act. But if there is something we can change, then we should at least discuss if it’s something we’re willing to change.

When 9/11 happened, people who tried to explain what motivated the terrorists to act were vilified and accused of siding with the terrorists. Some people referred to the history of events before 9/11 — Bin Laden is our ally in Afghanistan, fighting the Soviets, he feels that the first Iraq was is none of the US’s business and is angry with Saudi Arabia for having us go there. Our presence there leads to lots of US soldiers with what seems like a permanent presence in his holy land, and he’s pissed off. This is a simplification, of course, and put aside any errors in the history that might exist, this is an explanation, not a justification. We need to be able to see the difference.

When riots broke out in Ferguson over the death of Michael Brown, people rushed to explain the situation. Why were the people of Ferguson so upset? Why didn’t they believe the story of the officer? Was there a history of clashes between the police and citizens of Ferguson? But these attempts to understand what happened, mostly with what seemed like the intention of preventing it from happening again (“it” being the rioting and looting and outrage, not preventing a police officer from protecting himself/herself as needed), were treated like justifications by many. This confusion between explanation and justification has been taken so far that President Obama is being blamed for criminal actions against police officers that came later. His attempt to understand the problem, to explain the situation, has been called a “war” on police officers.

Let me make this comparison for those who cannot see the difference between explaining and justifying. Imagine a scientist with a lab that studies cancer. The work of the scientist is trying to understand why normal cells become cancerous. The scientist looks at all kinds of protein interactions, and genes that were dormant but became active, for mutations that made gene products act abnormally. The scientist wins the Nobel Prize for providing a complete explanation of the events that occur when a cell becomes cancerous. Do we chastise this scientist for justifying cancer? Of course we don’t. In the same way, we should let people try to explain what is happening when tragic events happen, without seeing it as a justification.

This request is personal. For people like me, explaining is how we find comfort in the world. If you don’t allow us to do this without being accused of justifying and taking the side of some horrendous act, you take away one of the most important ways that I find comfort in the world.

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4 thoughts on “Please stop confusing explaining and justifying

  1. Pingback: All or nothing thinking and how it hurts us all | Hitting Bregma

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