The Know-It-All’s Dodge has been hanging around waiting for me to add it to the Rationalizations List for a long time. I should have added it when President Barack Obama exploded my head with this exchange, in 2015, regarding his pathetic and disastrous handling of the Syrian civil war.
In an interview with CBS’s Steve Kroft, who had earlier in Obama’s administration stated outright that his questions to the President would not be confrontational ones, there was this:
KROFT: You have been talking a lot about the moderate opposition in Syria. It seems very hard to identify. And you talked about the frustrations of trying to find some and train them. You had a half-a-billion dollars from congress to train and equip 5,000, and at the end, according to the commander of CENTCOM, you got 50 people, most of whom are, are dead or deserted. He said you’ve got four or five left.
OBAMA: Steve, this is why I’ve been skeptical from the get-go about the notion that we were going to effectively create this proxy army inside of Syria.
Aghast, I wrote,
Wait—what??? This was Obama’s policy! He was brushing off a massive and expensive failure by saying he never really believed in it in the first place! Can anyone point me to any previous President or competent leader of any kind (Robert E. Lee: “Yeah, I always thought that Pickett’s Charge thing was a bad idea.” Roberto Goizueta: “I wasn’t surprised that New Coke flopped…I hated the stuff, myself.”) who would so brazenly deny accountability for his own fiasco?
If you want to know why Congress, which Obama persuaded to spend a half-billion dollars for a policy Obama now says he didn’t think would work, doesn’t trust this President, here is your answer. Nobody can trust a leader like this.
I really should call the new addition “Obama’s Dodge,” but if there was ever a President Know-it-all,” it was Barack. [ I’m thinking about doing as essay examining the question of whether a leader who is an unethical asshole but who poses as respectable leader, fooling much of the public, is better or worse for a country than a leader who is completely transparent and unapologetic about his asshole tendencies. Any resemblance to individuals alive or dead will be completely unintended, of course. ]
There has been a faint but distinct echo of this rationalization every time an Ethics Alarms commenter responds to a post about some new unethical outrage with “This comes as no surprise.” The thrust of The Know-It-All’s Dodge is that if one anticipated a bad result resulting from one’s own actions or decision, then one should be exonerated from blame, or that at least the blame should be moderated because it wasn’t a mistake, or something. The logic makes no sense, except to narcissists and idiots. (Obama is a narcissist.) If you KNEW something you were responsible for would have bad consequences, why did you allow it to occur? Resorting to this rationalization is damning, not mitigating.
I’m going to place “The Know-It-All’s Dodge” on the List in the cluster under #36. Victim Blindness, or “They/He/She/ You should have seen it coming.” ( “Victim Blindness attempts to shift responsibility for wrongdoing to the victims of it, who, the theory goes, should have known that their actions would inspire the conduct that caused them harm, and thus they should have either avoided doing what sparked the unethical response, or by not doing so waived their right to object to it.”) It will become the new #36 A, bumping the current The Extortionist’s Absolution (“You were warned!”), asserting that a victim’s defiance of a threat or warning that unethical conduct will be the response to an ethical action constitutes a waiver of ethical principles by the victim, to #36 B. This, is turn, demotes the current 36B. The Patsy’s Rebuke, or “It’s not my fault that you’re stupid!” (“the related but distinct situation where deception, fraud or misrepresentation would be “obvious” to a perceptive, intelligent, educated individual, so the unethical actor argues that nobody but the victim of that deception is blameworthy.”) to #36 C.
I hope you’re taking notes…
The old 36C, Donald’s Dodge, or “I never said I was perfect!” ( “…a really vile rationalization, one of the worst on the list. It posits the theory that as long as someone never says or suggests that he is above a particular kind of misconduct, he shouldn’t be judged harshly for engaging in it.”) will be moved under #19, The Perfection Diversion, or “Nobody’s Perfect!,” where it should have been in the first place.
Rationalization #36, Victim Blindness, holds that a purveyor of unethical conduct should be exonerated if his victim “asked for” mistreatment or should have taken affirmative steps to avoid it, and #36 A, The Extortionist’s Absolution, holds that when there were sufficient warnings that a victim was at risk, that victim can’t complain about results he could have and should have avoided. 36 B, The Patsy’s Rebuke, covers
Politicians, policy advocates, scientists, academics, lawyers and doctors, among others, all are prone to using 36 B to justify their adoption of deceit and obfuscation to accomplish their ends. Lawyers use jargon to sound authoritative and to obscure meaning from laymen. Policy advocates quote statistics to “prove” what the numbers really don’t prove, counting on the inability of the trusting, inattentive, ignorant and gullible to see the flaws as insulation against rebuttal. Advocates use statistics, falsity, jargon and ambiguity with the assumption, sadly justified, that most listeners and readers are both overly trusting and lacking in the training and acumen to know when they are being manipulated. If anyone is misled—and the intent is to mislead them— it’s their own fault for being stupid, lazy and ignorant.
It is not, however. Politicians, policy advocates, scientists, academics, lawyers and the rest have an ethical obligation to recognize the abilities of their likely audience (including those who will relay or interpret it, like the news media), and make their meaning as clear, direct and unambiguous as possible.
36C. Donald’s Dodge, or “I never said I was perfect!”
This is a really vile rationalization, one of the worst on the list. It posits the theory that as long as someone never says or suggests that he is above a particular kind of misconduct, he shouldn’t be judged harshly for engaging in it. This logic requires a certain genius in unethical reasoning. The name comes from the application of this ratioanlization when soon-to-be President Donald Trump employed it in his mea culpa for the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape, in which he boasted about the various sexual indignities young women would tolerate when a sexual assaulter is a celebrity—like him.
36C argues that the application of integrity, an ethical value, to wrongdoing cleanses the wrongdoing. As long as one always beats one’s wife and never pretends to be above such brutality, it is less of an abuse of decency, and that as long as one’s misconduct doesn’t prove previous dishonesty, then the conduct is lass objectionable. In this Donald’s delusion has kinship with Rationalization #22, The Comparative Virtue Excuse, or “There are worse things.” Yes, I suppose showing oneself to be a boor and a misogynist is technically worse when you have represented to the world that you weren’t one, but pointing to that as a mitigating factor is an insult.
Second, 36C also repeats the disingenuous assertion inherent in #19. The Perfection Diversion: “Nobody’s Perfect!” A man doesn’t have to be “perfect” to avoid engaging in ugly rhetoric that shows utter disrespect for approximately half of humanity, and extols sexual assault. That’s a loooong way from “perfect.” There are illiterate, ignorant paupers who can achieve this level of “perfection” without any effort at all.
This is also a dodge. We all know that it is impossible to be perfect, so the use of this rationalization cleverly turns a very easy form of ethical conduct—in this case, basic manners and civility—into a challenge that no one should be expected to meet. Donald’s Dodge is a versatile rationalization, however; you have to admit it. Get caught cheating on your spouse? “I never said I was perfect!” Betray a long-held trust? “I never said I was perfect!” Spread vile rumors about a friend? “I never said I was perfect!”
Slimy as it is to lower expectations as preparation for unethical conduct, it requires real gall to try to lower the bar after the misconduct.