[Note: This post originally appeared in April 2006. But recent news stories–particularly on abortion, Iraq, immigration, and the presidential campaigns–made me think it was a topic worth revisiting.]
“I wish he would explain his explanation,” wrote Lord Byron in response to the obscurantist poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Like Byron, we often find ourselves unsure of why people provide the explanations they do; an explanation of the explanation is needed. In his new book “Why?” Columbia University scholar Charles Tilly attempts to illuminate why we explain the way we do, or as reviewer Malcolm Gladwell says, to “make sense of our reasons for giving reasons.” In his intriguing review for The New Yorker, Gladwell outlines Tilly’s four general categories of reasons:
1. Conventions — conventionally accepted explanations.
2. Stories — specific accounts of cause and effect that limit the number of actors and actions and elevate the personal over the institutional.
3. Codes — high-level conventions, formulas that invoke sometimes abstruse procedural rules and categories.
4. Technical accounts — stories informed by specialized knowledge and authority.
To illustrate Tilly’s classification, Gladwell uses the “orgy of reason-giving” that followed Vice-President Dick Cheney’s quail-hunting accident involving his friend Harry Whittington:
Allies of the Vice-President insisted that the media were making way too much of it. “Accidents happen,” they said, relying on a convention. Cheney, in a subsequent interview, looked penitently into the camera and said, “The image of him falling is something I’ll never be able to get out of my mind. I fired, and there’s Harry falling. And it was, I’d have to say, one of the worst days of my life.” Cheney told a story. Some of Cheney’s critics, meanwhile, focused on whether he conformed to legal and ethical standards. Did he have a valid license? Was he too slow to notify the White House? They were interested in codes. Then came the response of hunting experts. They retold the narrative of Cheney’s accident, using their specialized knowledge of hunting procedure. The Cheney party had three guns, and on a quail shoot, some of them said, you should never have more than two. Why did Whittington retrieve the downed bird? A dog should have done that. Had Cheney’s shotgun been aimed more than thirty degrees from the ground, as it should have been? And what were they doing in the bush at five-thirty in the afternoon, when the light isn’t nearly good enough for safe hunting? The experts gave a technical account.
As Gladwell notes, all four explanations are relational and reveal something about the person who uses them. Those who wanted to excuse Cheney used the disengagement offered by convention. The Vice President, wanting to convey concern and regret without admitting to procedural wrongdoing, chose to explain himself with a story. Cheney’s critics desired to pin him to an absolute standard which comes from adherence to a code. For the hunting experts who wanted to display their singular expertise, the technical account provided the perfect form for an explanation.
Tilly contends that we tend to make two common errors when it comes to understanding reasons. The first is the assumption that some kinds of reasons are always better than others–that there is a hierarchy of reasons, with conventions (the least sophisticated) at the bottom and technical accounts at the top. The reasons people give aren’t a function of their character–that is, there aren’t people who always favor technical accounts and people who always favor stories. Rather, reasons arise out of situations and roles.
Examining these “situations and roles” can often lead us to a broader understanding of an issue we thought we had understood. An Scriptural example of this is found in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). When confronted by a religious expert who asks what must be done to inherit eternal life, Jesus turns the question back on his interlocutor by asking, “What is written in the law?” The theologian replies with a convention (“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”). When Jesus agrees, the expert asks, “And who is my neighbor?”
At this point, Jesus could have responded by offering a code, convention, or technical account as an explanation. Each of these would have appealed to the legalistic mind of his questioner. But in a artful move, Jesus replies by way of a narrative. He tells a story of a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan and ends it with a question rooted in his parable: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (v.36). When the legal expert replies (“The one who had mercy on him�) he finds that the narrative explanation has illuminated and expanded his understanding of a previous convention (“‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”).
Like the Jewish theologian in this story, we often expect explanations to take a form that we find most palatable. In debates and discussions we have a tendency to elevate our particular favorite, denigrate other categorical forms, or make stereotypical assumptions about the people who use them.
Examine, for instance, the popular perception of the way in which Christians compare our understanding of Scripture: Emergents prefer stories (i.e., narratives, testimony), Reformed theologians prefer codes (e.g., creeds), while Baptist laymen opt for technical accounts (e.g., doctrinal statements). All of these styles have their place and can have valid uses. But we tend to latch onto one mode and feel most comfortable with others who subscribe to our preferred explanatory style.
Examples can be found for almost every subject on which humans offer reasons and take sides. Proponents of abortion, Gladwell points out, often rely on a convention (a woman’s choice) and a technical account (concerning the viability of a fetus in the first trimester) while abortion opponents turn the fate of each individual fetus into a story: a life created and then abruptly terminated. Immigration offers another pattern, with some people giving more weight to convention (Illegal aliens are breaking the law) and others relying on story (“But my nanny is a hard-working”).
Once we become aware of our preferences, though, we can make an effort to be more open to understanding what roles and situations shape the reasons of those with whom we disagree. Reason-giving, says Tilly, reflects, establishes, repairs, and negotiates relationships. By being more receptive to our neighbor’s reasons for giving reasons, we could all become better Samaritans.