[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.