Category Archives: Problem Practices

Communication behavior or analysis that is often counter-productive

About that Slippery Ramp. . .

The explanations that kept multiplying affirmed what so many believe about the President: that he is preoccupied by the wrong things.

Recently President Trump was photographed leaving a graduation event at West Point gingerly descending a long ramp.  And, as everyone knows, he looked a lot like our grandfathers teetering along a sidewalk after a bad ice storm.

Social media had a field day with the images. Trump’s baby steps made the oversized man with an even larger ego look uncharacteristically frail.  And it created a lesson about what a perfect presidential response could be.

In American society it is almost never permissible to use age as a reason for any limitation. There is shame in accepting that we’ve been changed by time. Most public figures would laugh off the incident with grace, perhaps acknowledging (if they did at all) that ramps without rails can be slippery.  (The sloping walkway in fact had a rough-surface grip on its surface about every two feet.)

End of story. . . but not quite.

In his defense, he was probably right to mention that hard leather shoes can act like deflon on a smooth painted surface.

End of story . . . but not quite.

Two perfect responses down.  Any more begins to be less, including over ten minutes of defensiveness at his political rally in Tulsa. This vaudeville act was a grotesque overreaction from a President of the United States, given the medical, financial and social crises wracking the country.

End of story . . . but not quite.

He again addressed the same moment at West Point with the press in a later meeting.

Given the nation’s crippling problems, none of this really matters as substance.  But it does signal a character problem.  Many in their seventies may know the health costs of falling and breaking a hip can be far-reaching and even life-threatening. He had two reasonable explanations for caution.  That was enough. His continued reference to the event reminded us that the appearance of frailty mattered too much. It fed the widespread view that the President’s rhetoric only makes sense to him if it involves self praise and a blustery persona more appropriate to professional wrestling than political leadership.  So the explanations that turned into too many began to reaffirm what so many believe about the President: that he is more concerned about appearances than substance. And when protests of innocence boomerang, they end up as affirmations through denial, communicating to almost everyone that a person has lost awareness of what he is signaling.

The Durability of Scapegoating

[We have a President who is shameless in shifting the blame for our national woes to everyone but himself. This is a human habit we all have from time to time.  But rarely has a national leader so consistently sought the rhetorical cover of some other group’s malfeasance.  Here’s one theory for it.] 

The master-critic Kenneth Burke was a great observer of our communication routines, and never more so than when he described the “scapegoat principle.”  For most of us working to understand why we say the things we do, this familiar rhetorical form is a frequent reminder of the psychological benefits of transferring guilt to others.

Burke noted that groups or individuals face two options when a decision or action didn’t turn out as well as they wished.  If we screwed up, we can accept responsibility and note with regret that our efforts failed to work out.  He called this the “mortification” option, as in “I thought I could fix the bad feeling between Bill and Fred, but I think I just made it worse.  I’m not very good at playing the role of mediator.”  But doing this, of course, carries no obvious rewards, and requires a certain degree of grace and humility.

So we usually opt for the second choice: we scapegoat the problem to others.  It’s easier to blame Bill or Fred because doing so is an act of personal redemption.  In this form our words are all too familiar: “Things are not going very well in my life right now and it’s her fault.”  Like a fast-acting pill, the shifting of unwanted effects to others lifts us from the burdens of self-examination. In Burke’s language, we have “cast out” the problem.  Perhaps this is why we have parents, pets, uncles, Republicans, socialists, college professors, Iranians, labor unions, members of Congress and in-laws.  We can feel better when we believe that others are worse.

Most forms of scapegoating have a familiar ring:

  • They have created the mess we’re in.”
  • “My life is not going well; I blame the Democrats.”
  • “True, I flunked the course.  But I had a lousy teacher.”
  • “We’d be a good organization if only we had different leadership.”
  • “The problem with America is that it has too many illegal immigrants.”

Tribes have always used sacrifices to purge the group of its problems. The usual victim was a four-legged animal that would be sacrificed to cleanse away problems usually caused by other humans. In the 21st Century we are less likely to round up a hapless critter for this ritual “casting out” of guilt. Instead, we usually pick a plausible member of our own species and simply attribute our problems to them. Think of internet trolls and their venom.  Anonymous comments online represent a perpetual Lourdes of guilt transference.

It would be nice if we could chalk up this human habit as but a small foible in the species. But the consequences of blaming others can’t be so easily dismissed. It’s worth remembering that Hitler’s murderous purge of supposed “non-Aryans” from German society—first with words and later with death camps–was fresh in Burke’s mind when he summarized the scapegoating principle.