Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Never Apologize, Never Explain

I just read (in the April 10 issue of The New Yorker magazine) Malcolm Gladwell's review of the book Why?, in which Columbia University sociologist Charles Tilly wrote an analysis of the reasons people use to explain events or behavior.

Tilly proposes four basic types of reasons:

conventions (socially accepted clich├ęs like "My train was late," or "We're otherwise engaged that evening")
stories (simplified cause-effect narratives)
codes (legal, religious)
technical accounts (complicated narratives, often impenetrable to nonspecialists).

Tilly believes that social relations dictate the kind of reason people invoke in a given circumstance. For instance, people offer more elaborate rationales for their behavior — stories, rather than conventions — to those close to them. They invoke codes with individuals whom they have power over, but not those who have power over them.

My first question is: what kind of relation is implied when you don't offer any reason at all?

I suspect Tilly's typology currently works for North America, and perhaps for all modernized cultures. As interesting as his theory is though, given the fact that America is involved in world-wide conflicts and diplomacy, I hope some diplomats/cultural anthropologists will take this subject further, to analyze explanations in other cultures.

Which brings me to my second question: what happens if your only explanation tool is the story?

Sitting here in the Middle East, I often find myself trying to decode public statements simply to discover what the underlying agenda could be. Within Israel, the "power distance" is practically non-existent, so almost all behavior is explained with stories. [To traffic cop] "I went through the red light because I'm rushing my wife to the hospital." [To teacher] "My dog ate my homework." [To boss] "I'm late for work because there was a bomb scare on the road." [To child] "God told us/them not to drive on Saturdays."

That last one is a consolidation of all four types, and that's my theory. Our only tool here is The Story. If you're an observant Jew in Israel, everything boils down to the Jewish Story. If you're a non-observant Jew in Israel, everything boils down to the Zionist Story. If you're a non-Jew living in Israel, you have a second-class citizen story or a technical account. Almost all Israeli explanations are stories or occasionally technical accounts. Either because the country is so young, or because it's so tribal, or maybe because it's so post-modern, conventions, laws, and codes - where they exist at all - are turned into stories.

As for the Palestinian Story, it's so intimately connected to the Zionist Story as a negation that I don't think Israelis and Palestinians will be able to get along without war until we can find a way to combine our stories. Two States with a Single Story: is it possible? The immigrant problems in Europe and North America can be explained as: immigrants won't give up their Story.

Who said Life is Not a Novel? Prediction: In the Global Village, all we'll have is blogs and science.


goldenlucyd said...

Wow, Savta!
That's a lot to think about! Pretty profound. I certainly appreciated your observation re the Israeli/Palestinian situation. tChauvanistic tribal mythology is a real fly-in-the-ointment. I'm going to think about this a lot more. Great-thought-provoking post.

Fred said...

Indeed, that is a lot to digest. But as long as we have our blogs, there's still a chance...

John said...

I wonder what combination of "reasons" the Enron boys and President Frat Boy will come up with.

peripateticpolarbear said...

I think I'll need to read that book.

Savtadotty said...

glodenlucyd - I'm still trying to wrap my brain around this stuff.

fred - Welcome back! I should think a history teacher would find this theory most interesting.

john - Probably the real story is, "We thought we were smart enough to get away with it."

ppb - So will I (!)

Julie said...

GREAT post, Savta. I'll be thinking about this for a long time. Thank you.