Acknowledging Reported Emotions Before ‘Explaining’ Them

Suppose you say, “I’m <angry, sad, disappointed, anxious, irate,….> because of X <my neighbor’s behavior, my father’s letter, my mother’s language to me last night, my husband’s antics….>.” As an example, “I’m sad because  my brother ignored my birthday this year.” Now, suppose your respondent immediately launches into an ‘explanation’ of, or ‘apologia’ for, X: Your brother didn’t really ignore your birthday, it’s just that he was traveling and didn’t have WiFi, and so wasn’t able to call you on the day. Or something like that. This response by your interlocutor attempts to fit the actions or events that have caused you some emotional pain into a causal arrangement that makes your acquaintances’ behavior more explicable; it makes the case that the action was not personally directed, that it was not malevolent, and so on. Your interlocutors are attempting to defuse and remove the sting of the hurt; they are attempting a therapeutic maneuver, devising a narrative that will allow you–as if in the clinic–to tell a story that ‘works better’ for you.

This, more often than not, turns out to be a mistake; such ‘explanations’ and attempts to ‘mitigate’ the hurt, the anger, the pain, simply do not work; you remain as angry, perplexed, or irate as before; indeed, these emotions might have been exacerbated, and you might have an entirely new conflict, one with your interlocutor, on your hands. The problem, of course, is that the original statement has been misinterpreted;  it is a confusion to think these kinds of statements are attempts to assign causal blame; rather, they are reports of feelings.  When the person we are talking to starts to address the causal relationship they think they have detected, they have moved on past the original emotions that actually prompted the report. Contextualizing the reported emotion so that it fits into a wider nexus of actions and reactions and emotions is a worthwhile task; it may indeed make the sufferer feel they are not being persecuted, that they are not alone, and so on. But this sort of amelioration is best carried out after an acknowledgment of the feelings at play. These sorts of reports are calls for help; they report discomfort; they seek relief. But like any good healer, we must first make note of the symptom reported and only then attempt a diagnosis. To begin by offering apologia is a surefire method of negating and dismissing the initial report, which seeks, first and foremost, a hearing.

This kind of interaction is exceedingly common; I have participated in many myself, both as offender and victim. It is often reported as the kind of conversational play between men and women that sets the two genders apart distinctively i.e., men jump to ‘solving the problem presented’ while women ‘process the emotions reported’ (though I think gender lines cannot be so clearly drawn here; there are exceptions aplenty on both sides.) It derails more conversations than might be imagined; and it only needs the simplest of conversational maneuvers, an acknowledgment that we have been listening, to ameliorate it.

Thou Shalt Know All Before Offering Critique (Of The Police)

A common argument made in the ongoing national discussion about police brutality and violence is, very roughly, “We should be careful in criticizing the police because we have little idea of how difficult and dangerous their work is.” Which reminds me: some ten years ago, when discussing the Abu Ghraib tortures and sundry atrocities with a serving military officer, he offered me the following piece of wisdom: “You cannot, from this safe couch-warming distance, judge the actions of military men; you have no idea of the dangers and stresses of their work.”

You know, whereof one cannot know every excruciating detail, one should not criticize or judge or pass moral judgment?

I don’t ride around in a police cruiser, I don’t encounter gang members, I don’t break up domestic disputes. I really should watch what I say when I see a police man crack heads with a nightstick, or shoot a young unarmed man. I really should bite my tongue when I see soldiers harass and humiliate naked, cowering, and helpless prisoners.

I dunno. I don’t have a pass to the White House or the Oval Office. I’m not privy to all the deliberations of the executive branch of the US government; I’m not invited to sit in on the meetings of the councils of power and take minutes. Yet I find myself criticizing its members’ actions all the time–with passion and fervor. Certainly, many of those who would like criticism of the police or the military to be tempered and attenuated and channeled into more ‘constructive’ forms and venues have no problems in doing so either.

I feel free to offer such criticism because the effects of the actions taken by those I criticize are real, visibly tangible, and affect the lives of humans in wide-ranging ways. Sometimes it’s because I feel my critique should feature in the decision-making process that the powerful employ. Perhaps those in power should keep my perspective front and center when they begin some course of action.

The imbalance of power runs only one way in this relationship: my critique attempts to redress it.

The note of caution, the command to seek a broader and more synoptic perspective, directed at me, is misplaced. It should be directed instead at those who wear uniforms, carry guns, deploy deadly force; its passion should be channeled toward those who can imprison, torture, kill; it should stay the hands of those who can end the lives of considerably less powerful humans thanks to their flawed, made-on-the-basis-of-incomplete-information decision-making. How about if the police, in their interactions with citizenry, strive to achieve some understanding of, some empathy with, those whose lives they regulate and discipline and punish?

There is always some problem with critiquing the powerful: you didn’t understand their perspective, you know not what they do, you didn’t protest the right way.

Every argument that urges the weak, the less powerful, the subjects of often deadly state and penal power, to understand and integrate and internalize the perspectives of those with greater power, is a dangerous diversion, a sham, a participation in, and propagation of, an ideology that glorifies and valorizes the political structures that oppress us.

Does Explanation Constitute Justification? Geras Contra Greenwald and Eagleton

And does it thereby also run the risk of shading into apologia when the event being explained is one that would strike some as a heinous act? In response to the Woolwich killing of a British soldier by machete-wielding assailants, Glenn Greenwald thinks not. Terry Eagleton agrees (in a fashion). Norman Geras disagrees. (As the links in that Geras post and his responses in this interview will show, this is not a new concern for him.)


I know exactly how some people reflexively try to radically distort the argument beyond recognition in order to smear you as a Terror apologist, a Terrorist-lover or worse, all for the thought crime of raising these issues. To do so, they deceitfully conflate claims of causation (A is one of the causes of B) with justification (B is justified). Anyone operating with the most basic levels of rationality understands that these concepts are distinct. To discuss what motivates a person to engage in Action B is not remotely to justify Action B.


It is rather because [those who would condemn apologia] imagine, in their muddled way, that to explain an event is to excuse it. Those who point to the dead of Iraq and Afghanistan are surely doing so as a devious way of justifying the slaughter of a young soldier outside his barracks.

Do they also think this about the crimes of Hitler or Stalin? Are they really suggesting that historians who delve into the origins of fascism are secret Nazi sympathisers, or that to lay bare the causes of the Gulag is to exonerate its architects? The problem for these commentators is that if an event can be explained, it must be rationally motivated, and that sounds uncomfortably close to endorsing it. To call an action rational, however, is by no means to justify it.


First, Eagleton is right: you can explain a bad event without being an apologist for it. But, second, you can also purport to explain something precisely in order to excuse it. Or: To understand is not necessarily to condone, yet it just might be. The logic here isn’t difficult to grasp; not all people are academics, but some people are academics. Etc. It is also the case that what presents itself as historical explanation can sometimes have a plainly apologetic function. I recommend to Eagleton’s attention the so-called Historians’ Dispute – the Historikerstreit – in West Germany (as was) in the late 1980s, and the contributions to it in particular of Ernst Nolte.

Geras goes on to draw an uncomfortable analogy:

Imagine men who commit rape and say, ‘I did it because she was asking for it; you should have seen how she was dressed, and flaunting herself, etc.’ [But my interlocutor] says that one must concede some rationality to these men and to their explanation for their acts of violence against women, otherwise one has denied the possibility of rational explanation as such – even though plenty of men don’t rape women, however dressed, and even though those who do do so justify their actions by reference to a pernicious belief system…[my interlocutor] always quick to explain (without justifying) the likes of the Woolwich killing or of the Boston bombings, nearly never, if they ever, make any effort to explain (without justifying) the use by Western governments of torture and extraordinary rendition. They do not urge upon people the need to understand torture as a response to what the jihadists do, on the grounds that if we fail so to understand it, we’ll lose all grip on rational explanation…

But, you know, to explain is not to justify. Well, sometimes it isn’t. But sometimes it is to condone or attempt to mitigate or get people to look away from what you don’t want them to notice.

Geras is right that some explanations function as excuses; after all our anger at a miscreant does often ebb once he explains why he did what he did. Why else would we offer explanations for actions of ours that meet with disapproval?  That said, the disagreement between Greenwald, Eagleton and Geras is perhaps at a more fundamental level.

To provide an explanation of something is to make it more comprehensible in the light of beliefs already held. An ‘explanation’ of a comet’s tail in language comprehensible to a graduate student in physics will not be one to a schoolboy untutored in the barest notions of astrophysics; an atheist looking for  an explanation of his beloved’s death will not find a theological explanation couched in terms of God’s ‘plan’ satisfactory.  This definition also implies merely providing the cause of an event will not be sufficient if that cause itself is incomprehensible; one convinced that a malevolent terror is on the loose will not be convinced that the medical cause for a loved one’s death provides any explanation whatsoever.  For these unsatisfied folk, the world retains its inexplicability even after the explanation is provided, one that might be satisfactory to someone else. The subject of an explanation has an active role to play in making that explanation a good one.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that Geras does not consider these particular recountings of the causes and motives of the Woolwich killer to be explanations at all: they do not locate the event in the proper or correct network of causes, motives and actions; the killings remain mysterious on their accounts. The correct explanation, for Geras, of the Woolwich killing must include explicit reference to a host of factors left out by Greenwald and Eagleton; it is the incompleteness, the lack of comprehensiveness of the explanations offered by Greenwald and Eagleton, that for Geras turns them into apologia. In the rape and torture examples, those who reject the putative explanations as apologia are doing the same; they don’t consider them explanations at all. Consider, for instance, that someone had ‘explained’ the Woolwich killings in purely biological/physiological/physical terms (if this was at all possible).  We would scarcely consider this an explanation; we understand the right language of explanation for this act will be drawn from elsewhere (politics, theories of violence, history and so on). That ‘explanation’ would sound like apologia to Greenwald and Eagleton.