Monday, December 22, 2008

The scoundrel’s script: deny, diminish, displace

[UPDATE — June 4, 2010:  Stephen Walt offers a similar, more fun list of "21 handy talking-points" in a post about "Defending  the indefensible: a how-to guide" at his Foreign Policy blog.]

This does not have a lot to do with STA or TIMN, but aspects of both are buried in it. And examples abound in recent news. Of today’s front-page scoundrels, Mugabe in particular is well into the script, and Blagojevich appears to be on his way. In contrast, Madoff is apparently so caught he can’t resort to the script.

* * * * *

A slippery old storyline is too common a sight these days. It’s about people who do something wrong, get away with it for a while, then are found out. As they feel the brunt of blame, they slide into a three-act script to deceive and defy their accusers.

  • Act one is to deny wrong-doing: “The accusations are false … nothing of the sort happened … my record is unblemished … I gave no such orders … show respect.” 
  • If denial fails and evidence mounts, act two is to diminish the taint: “It was just a one-time mistake … a lapse of judgment … a few bad apples … we thought we read the rules right … I didn’t know until later … our system works fine; it’s not to blame … we fixed the problem … the media exaggerate … that’s not the right word for what happened … I wasn’t my true self … I didn’t mean it.” 
  • And if that still fails to work and evidence and pressure keep growing, act three is to deflect and displace the blame: “Who are you to judge me … you’ve no right … you’re not so perfect … what’s your game … your hands are dirtier … they’ve done far worse … they provoked it … they gave us bad info … there’s a conspiracy … we were being threatened … everybody’s been doing it ... I’m the real victim here.”

Not all wrong-doers enact the entire script. Ones who still have a conscience and a positive sense of strategy -- who are not true scoundrels -- may own up during step one and accept responsibility. Others, if fully exposed while dissembling in step two, may fold quietly rather than move into step three.

But plunging through all three acts is all too human. It can tempt a sneaky child, a wayward teenager, a cheating adult. It is common among angry abusive alcoholics, petty thieves, and free-loaders. Most galling are evasive public- and private-sector leaders who make headlines while they push all three acts to an extreme: say a dictator on trial for crimes against humanity, a corporate executive denying fraud, an official accused of a cover-up, a church figure who hides illicit behavior, a celebrity associated with banned substances -- not to mention some of the political posturing that emanates from conflicts in the Middle East. Worse yet, cover-ups that follow genocides generally revolve around this script, a good historical example being Russian responses to revelations about the Katyn Forest massacre in Poland during WWII. [Many thanks to John Arquilla for pointing out this example.]

Intensities vary. Sometimes a prominent wrong-doer -- for example, a Milosevic, or a Mugabe -- moves to step three in a vociferous public rage that appeals to partisan audiences and confounds accusers. But often the process is subtle and subdued, such as when an organization’s leaders and lawyers maneuver to elude the spotlight and spin blame in other directions.

Motives vary too, but often reduce to cold-hearted self-protection. In some instances, the cause seems psychological -- the result of a narcissistic personality who feels above the law and doesn’t mind using deceit. Or the dynamics seem institutional -- a set of tactics for clinging to power and its prerogatives. Or the enactment may be strategic -- deception operations may depend on people falling for this kind of script. Or the pattern looks cultural -- as in tribalized conflicts where atrocities, once uncovered, lead not to admissions of guilt or shame but to claims of self-defense and honorable vengeance for misdeeds blamed on the other side. Indeed, the more tribal and clannish people turn, in any setting, the more likely this three-act script will crop up.

There is no easy way to deal with people who use this script. It seems ingrained in human nature. As psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson explain in their 2007 book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), people are normally adept at justifying “foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts.” Calculating scoundrels who don’t care are even more adept and less likely to relent and retract. Indeed, it is easier for a villain to enact these three stages of deceit than for their victims to cope afterwards with the five stages of grief that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified in her 1969 book On Death and Dying: first, denial a tragedy is at hand, then anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance). Note how both scripts start with denial.

Americans are rarely surprised to see the scoundrel’s script unfold in news from other countries. But it looks more prevalent here now too. A major episode at a time once seemed the norm (e.g., Nixon reacting to Watergate). But in recent years, multiple instances have filled the media, sometimes simultaneously involving figures from Wall Street, the White House, and other major institutions. Must I name names? I’d rather suppose that we each have our own lists of favorite examples.

This adds to signs that American society is corroding. American-style capitalism, politics, and culture already look increasingly dysfunctional, in need of adjustments. The rising incidence of the scoundrel’s script only makes matters look worse -- it’s becoming as American as apple pie.

But there may be an additional (even better?) explanation: the information revolution. It cannot account for all scoundrels, and I cannot tell for sure whether their number is in fact higher than ever. Yet, the information revolution has provided both scoundrels and their detectors with new opportunities and capabilities. In particular, the new technologies -- e.g, new record-keeping and information-sharing rules, huge computerized databanks for logging transactions, various types of surveillance and monitoring systems, plus email systems, blogs, website, and online chat rooms that may enable multiple isolated victims to find each other faster and more effectively -- all make it more difficult for scoundrels to hide forever. The growing vigilance of investigative media and watchdog NGOs also make it likelier that scoundrels will eventually be exposed. But this won’t stop new ones from coming along.

[Revised/updated from initial 2002 draft.]

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