Several weeks ago, my wife ordered a replacement chair. She received an order confirmation, but days went by… without any chair or any more information. She called the company, and was referred to another number, where she was told they had no information, and that the order number was incorrect. She persisted, and after more than a half-hour the company finally located the chair and provided shipping and arrival information, but the only words remotely related to responsibility were, “The order number was incorrectly entered.”

There was nothing said about someone making a mistake.

And last year, The Atlantic actually ran an article on the phrase “mistakes were made.” Some of those using that phrase included Richard Nixon’s press secretary Ron Ziegler, on the lies he had told the Washington Post [1973]; Vice President George H.W. Bush on the Iran-Contra scandal and the administration’s lying about it [1986]; Ronald Reagan, on the same topic in his State of the Union address [1987]; Bill Clinton on administration officials discussing banking policy in front of fund-raisers [1997]; Henry Kissinger, on human-rights complaints about U.S. intelligence activities in South America [2002]; New Jersey governor Chris Christie on the GW Bridge scandal in his State of the State address[2014], and, incidentally, Albert Speer at the Nuremberg trials [1946].

What bothers me about such phrases is that, all too often, they’re an attempt to avoid personal responsibility or to blame someone else, either for doing something wrong, or for not fulfilling the speaker or commenter’s personal desires, all under the guise of seemingly impersonal objectivity.

And, as the examples above demonstrate, the desire to avoid admitting blame publicly certainly isn’t a recent phenomenon.

4 thoughts on “Non-Responsibility?”

  1. JakeB says:

    I’ve been thinking lately on the distinction between “shame” and “guilt” cultures. I first learned about it in my Western Civ class many years ago, where it was mentioned that the Ancient Greeks’ social interactions were affected more by shame (someone knowing you did something bad) than by guilt (you yourself knowing you did something bad). The distinction was drawn between the Greeks and later Christian cultures, in which guilt was dominant.

    This seems relevant to me because in a shame culture, if no one knows that you did something, there’s no responsibility attached.

    Anyways, I’ve been wondering lately if, in part owing to the slow diminishment of the importance of religion in many Americans’ lives, if shame is becoming a more dominant aversive factor than guilt. (I’m an atheist but nonetheless the rise of a great spiritual anomie in this country seems to me one of the reasons that we seem to be careening so directly towards the abyss.)

    Of course, I suppose politicians by their nature may belong more to a shame culture than guilt culture in any case.

  2. Tom says:

    I understand that shame is a self-directed sensation. People may or may not say “shame on you” but the substance of shame is recognition of our doing something ignoble if not evidently bad. If society does not recognize your action but you know it was bad then the shame should cause at least a self-corrective action.So shame does have responsibility attached and that is self driven.

    For me guilt is legal and, as we know, it does not necessarily necessitate self-recognition as the guilty party or at all the sensation of shame.

    On can be guilty without being ashamed but one cannot be ashamed without being guilty. Thus politicians can be guilty but show no evidence or feel any shame: hence “mistakes were made”.

  3. John Prigent says:

    Don’t forget the catch-all, general purpose phrase ‘lessons will be learnt’.

    1. Ralph Wilson says:

      Or “where there’s blame, there’s a claim!” beloved of ambulance-chasers everywhere which might have something to do with reluctance to admit a mistake!

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