Predatory Explanation And Attribution Theory

The heart of Predatory Explanation is Attributions. People act as they act, but it is up to us to “explain” why. We stick motives on other people’s actions like flyers on an overcrowded bulletin board, frequently covering over their own explanations of why they acted as they did.

A moment’s thought will convince anyone of the truth of one of the main theses of attribution theory, a sub-field of social psychology: namely, that we attribute reasons and motivations to ourselves and others according to quite different principles. The jargon of the field calls this “situational” contra “dispositional” attributing, because our own acts are explained in terms of the situation in which we find ourselves, but the acts of our opponents are explained in terms of their (pre)disposition to behave in that way. For ourselves, constraint and innocence; for others, freedom and malice.

Essentially, we all take our cue from the bureaucrat who writes, “I regret to have to inform you that pursuant to Subsection blah blah blah, the Department is unable to grant your application.” On the contrary, he regrets nothing, the Department would certainly be able to grant the application if it wanted to (as it has no doubt ignored any facts that work in your favour), and in any case all regulations have loopholes for the exercise of discretion. But the bureaucrat always pretends that he has no room for manoeuvre and that rejection of your application follows from the letter of the law as night follows day. And we all do exactly the same thing in our private lives. Our explanation of our own behaviour is couched in terms of constraints, restrictions and compulsions. Even the movie gangster fitting a competitor for concrete shoes makes a show of sentimental regret at the unfortunate economic necessities under which he must eke out his precarious living. Like Mrs. Thatcher, therefore, we take for our watchword the acronym TINA, “There Is No Alternative.”

This impotence in the face of force majeure, however, is rarely employed to explain the inconvenient behaviour of other people. These others are always imagined to be entirely free agents. From this it follows that whatever they do is freely chosen. If they behave badly it is not because they have no alternative, it is because they are doing what they want and what comes naturally. Their actions are the outward and visible expression of their inward and spiritual nature. For example, we are “compelled” to break an agreement (situation); but they are by nature “treacherous” (disposition).

Now, whenever you set out to explain the behaviour of others by pointing to their innate characteristics, it is essential to select characteristics that you do not yourself share. These qualities, and these alone, should then be held to be responsible for undesirable behaviour. It follows that, since you yourself do not possess these characteristics, you could not have committed the same acts. If all moral evil can be ascribed to a particular category of human being to which you do not yourself belong, your own category is rendered above reproach. And if your own category is above reproach, then your own actions must be above reproach too. This is clearly desirable.

If you are a woman deciding to be a Predatory Explainer, for example, the fact that some of the things you do are done qua woman and some qua human being must at all costs be obscured. This requires a systematic confusion of the bad behaviour that is due to “maleness” with the bad behaviour that is due to “humanness” itself. The same goes for the misfortunes that are caused by men and those that are inherent in life on Earth. There must be no such thing as “the human condition”, bad luck, or the unfortunate consequences of your own actions. All the miseries that others have blamed on human egotism, folly and general perversity are to be attributed to men alone, because then you go free of any share in them.

You must say to a man who has displeased you, “You did this because you are a man”; even if in his place you would have done precisely the same thing. Evil cannot be said to reside in the human heart as such, since you have one of these too; a different organ is therefore responsible, one which you do not possess.

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