Ramblings & ephemera

Our reasons for giving reasons

From Malcolm Gladwell’s “Here’s Why: A sociologist offers an anatomy of explanations“:

In “Why?”, the Columbia University scholar Charles Tilly sets out to make sense of our reasons for giving reasons. …

In Tilly’s view, we rely on four general categories of reasons. The first is what he calls conventions—conventionally accepted explanations. Tilly would call “Don’t be a tattletale” a convention. The second is stories, and what distinguishes a story (“I was playing with my truck, and then Geoffrey came in . . .”) is a very specific account of cause and effect. Tilly cites the sociologist Francesca Polletta’s interviews with people who were active in the civil-rights sit-ins of the nineteen-sixties. Polletta repeatedly heard stories that stressed the spontaneity of the protests, leaving out the role of civil-rights organizations, teachers, and churches. That’s what stories do. As Tilly writes, they circumscribe time and space, limit the number of actors and actions, situate all causes “in the consciousness of the actors,” and elevate the personal over the institutional.

Then there are codes, which are high-level conventions, formulas that invoke sometimes recondite procedural rules and categories. If a loan officer turns you down for a mortgage, the reason he gives has to do with your inability to conform to a prescribed standard of creditworthiness. Finally, there are technical accounts: stories informed by specialized knowledge and authority. An academic history of civil-rights sit-ins wouldn’t leave out the role of institutions, and it probably wouldn’t focus on a few actors and actions; it would aim at giving patient and expert attention to every sort of nuance and detail.

Tilly argues that we make two common errors when it comes to understanding reasons. The first is to assume 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. That’s wrong, Tilly says: each type of reason has its own role.

Tilly’s second point flows from the first, and it’s that 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. …

Reason-giving, Tilly says, reflects, establishes, repairs, and negotiates relationships. The husband who uses a story to explain his unhappiness to his wife—“Ever since I got my new job, I feel like I’ve just been so busy that I haven’t had time for us”—is attempting to salvage the relationship. But when he wants out of the marriage, he’ll say, “It’s not you—it’s me.” He switches to a convention. As his wife realizes, it’s not the content of what he has said that matters. It’s his shift from the kind of reason-giving that signals commitment to the kind that signals disengagement. Marriages thrive on stories. They die on conventions. …

The fact that Timothy’s mother accepts tattling from his father but rejects it from Timothy is not evidence of capriciousness; it just means that a husband’s relationship to his wife gives him access to a reasongiving category that a son’s role does not. …

When we say that two parties in a conflict are “talking past each other,” this is what we mean: that both sides have a legitimate attachment to mutually exclusive reasons. Proponents of abortion often rely on a convention (choice) and a technical account (concerning the viability of a fetus in the first trimester). Opponents of abortion turn the fate of each individual fetus into a story: a life created and then abruptly terminated. Is it any surprise that the issue has proved to be so intractable? If you believe that stories are the most appropriate form of reason-giving, then those who use conventions and technical accounts will seem morally indifferent—regardless of whether you agree with them. And, if you believe that a problem is best adjudicated through conventions or technical accounts, it is hard not to look upon storytellers as sensationalistic and intellectually unserious. …

Tilly argues that these conflicts are endemic to the legal system. Laws are established in opposition to stories. In a criminal trial, we take a complicated narrative of cause and effect and match it to a simple, impersonal code: first-degree murder, or second-degree murder, or manslaughter. The impersonality of codes is what makes the law fair. But it is also what can make the legal system so painful for victims, who find no room for their voices and their anger and their experiences. Codes punish, but they cannot heal.

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