Say Howdy To The Latest Addition To The Rationalizations List: #1D, Higgins’ Misconception”


The title of Rationalization 1D comes from literature, specifically George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 drama, “Pygmalian,” better known today for its musical adaptation,”My Fair Lady.” The moment when Shaw’s obnoxious and misanthropic antihero Henry Higgins defines his rationalization occurs in Act 5; Alan J. Lerner lifted it almost verbatim for his book of the musical. Arrogant speech expert Higgins, having been rebuked by Eliza, the flower girl whom he taught to speak like an upper-class British woman to win a bet, for his cruel and uncivil conduct toward her says in his defense,

HIGGINS. … If you come back I shall treat you just as I have always treated you. I can’t change my nature; and I don’t intend to change my manners. My manners are exactly the same as Colonel Pickering’s.

LIZA. That’s not true. He treats a flower girl as if she was a duchess.

HIGGINS. And I treat a duchess as if she was a flower girl.

LIZA. I see.

HIGGINS. Just so….The great secret, Eliza, is not having bad manners or good manners or any other particular sort of manners, but having the same manner for all human souls: in short, behaving as if you were in Heaven, where there are no third-class carriages, and one soul is as good as another.

I immediately thought of this exchange when Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, in his rambling denial of multiple sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations, proclaimed his innocence (His victims don’t understand him!) by arguing that as a red-blooded Italian he’s just wired to be physically demonstrative, and treats everyone the same way.

1D is in the large category of self-excusing rationalizations. It is a most convenient delusion to believe that victims of mistreatment shouldn’t take it personally because the abuser is equally abusive to all, but the logic, or lack of it, leads directly to the parent rationalization, the most commonly employed of them all, #1, “Everybody Does It.” The frequency and consistency of unethical conduct does not transform it into acceptably ethical behavior. Treating everyone the same can be a virtue, but not when it involves treating everyone equally badly. “I beat everyone, so it’s OK if I beat you”? “I steal from everyone, so nobody should think ill of me when I steal from them”? That reasoning doesn’t reveal “a great secret:” it’s either a calculated lie or stupidity.

The only issue in adding Higgins’ Misconception to the list was whether another rationalization covered it. There are seven besides “Everybody does it” that are closely related:

  • 3A  The Road To Hell, or “I meant well” (“I didn’t mean any harm!”)
  • 14. Self-validating Virtue
  • 38. The Miscreant’s Mulligan or “Give him/her/them/me a break!
  • 41 A. Popeye’s Excuse, or “I am what I am.”
  • 50A.  Narcissist Ethics , or “I don’t care”
  • 58. The Golden Rule Mutation, or “I’m all right with it!,” especially the listed mutation, “Do unto me as you would want to have done unto you if you were as devoid of civilized values as I am, and 
  • 61.  The Paranoid’s Blindness, or “It’s not me, it’s you.”

In the end, I decided that the intellectually dishonest excuse attempted by both the fictional Higgins and the unfortunately real life Cuomo warrants an entry of its own.

8 thoughts on “Say Howdy To The Latest Addition To The Rationalizations List: #1D, Higgins’ Misconception”

  1. Eliza’s dismissal of him is one for eternity and all entitled jerks, pompous asses, and borderline sociopaths who think waaaaay too much of themselves:

    There’ll be spring every year without you
    England still will be here without you
    There’ll be fruit on the tree
    And a shore by the sea
    There’ll be crumpets and tea without you

    Art and music will thrive without you
    Somehow Keats will survive without you
    And there still will be rain on that plain down in Spain
    Even that will remain without you
    I can do without you

    You, dear friend, who taught so well
    You can go to Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire

    They can still rule the land without you
    Windsor Castle will stand without you
    And without much ado we can all muddle through without you

    Oh, and Andrew – don’t try to hide behind the idea that we Italian-Americans are all physically demonstrative. You’re American enough, educated enough, and savvy enough to know that’s crap, and that it’s precisely that kind of handsy behavior followed by arrogance and dismissiveness that gets all of us a bad name. Italy once ruled the entire Mediterranean, was the birthplace of the Renaissance and cradle of modern science and art, gave us the discoverer of America and the first European to enter North America proper (a no-prize if you can name him), produced the summit of musical art, was the first country to deploy frogmen in war, and gave us the cynic (Machiavelli), the scientist (Galileo), and the man of faith (St. Francis of Assisi), not to mention cannoli, gelato and all kinds of wine. She deserves better representation than the idea that her men are all philandering, handsy, arrogant, hot-blooded and hot-headed, knife-fighting Lotharios who can’t or won’t control themselves around women, go from zero to sixty in a second if triggered, and use violence as a first resort.

    • And yet Eliza comes back at the end. For such a classic play and musical, the ending has never satisfied anyone. Shaw experimented with several—the one we’re used to wasn’t Shaw’s at all, but that of the director of the excellent Leslie Howard-Wendy Hiller movie of “Pygmalian.” Shaw was not pleased. In a later edition of the play, he even wrote a cod that explained what Eliza did after leaving Higgins. Nobody like that ending either: she married that dork, Freddie.

      • For an otherwise excellent writer, Shaw did seem to have written himself into a corner there and just couldn’t figure out a good way out.

    • The classiest and maybe best women’s “eff you” song of all time. It takes a Julie Andrews to deliver it.

      I always thought Eliza would have done okay with Freddie, if (big if) his parents didn’t cut him off.

  2. Some people can be morally confused about the right thing to do, but in today’s world, many people don’t even try anymore. Politicians in the past used to at least hide their bad behavior. Divorce and such was seen as something terrible, even if it had to be done (like in an abusive relationship). Standards today just seem very low. “Don’t kill anyone, steal (unless you are doing it during a riot), and be PC.” Apparently, sexual harassment isn’t a big deal if you are a Democrat, especially a powerful one.

    Your spouse isn’t as fun as they used to be? Divorce.
    Someone upsets you? Burn their house down.
    Someone says something potentially offensive to someone somewhere in the universe? Cancel them.

    One thing society is losing is the care about even trying to be a trustworthy person, to fight our baser impulses, and to understand that a temporary feeling is not a basis for acting on anything. To worship our own feelings is to invite disaster. I am genuinely scared of what the world is going to be like when the old guard has passed on.

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