Moral complexity makes for great movies, but it doesn't mix well with politics.
I haven't spent much time over the past year thinking about Bob McDonnell's problem. He wasn't my governor, he's not a member of my political party, and he and I are on different sides of a number of issues. So when the news came out this week that McDonnell and his wife have been indicted on a number of charges related to receiving gifts and loans in exchange for political favors, I didn't bother to read the full article.
But now the Washington Post is running analysis of this story and I can't stop reading. I am not nearly as interested in the stupid things that people do than I am in their explanations for their behavior. I'm in the meaning-making business after all. I am interested in the stories we tell ourselves and others to make sense of our actions.
Robert McCartney asked in his column yesterday, "How did a smart guy like Bob McDonnell end up in this mess?" His response was less than satisfying: "a toxic mix of personal money worries, an assertive wife, a taste for luxury, and a culture of coziness between politicians and rich supporters." What's missing in this list? Anything that suggests that McDonnell is really responsible for his actions. It makes it sound like it was all an unfortunate mistake. The "assertive wife" comment is particularly egregious. It makes it sound like McDonnell was guilty only of trying to make his wife happy and to make everything seem like it was okay. It sounds suspiciously like a story that McDonnell is telling himself right now.
But I think simple explanations tend to be more accurate. Instead of attributing McDonnell's actions to a "toxic mix" of anything, let's just say that McDonnell did what he did because it benefitted him and he thought he could get away with it. Everything else is a story told to justify bad behavior: "I deserve this", "My office demands I have this", "This is how the game works", "This was forced on me by someone else."
McDonnell's actions may be particular to politicians, but his explanations aren't. We all try to justify our bad behavior so that we can maintain our role as the hero of our own stories. How can we check this tendency before we get into trouble?
- Ask: Would I tell other people the story I'm telling myself? Would they believe me? This is a version of one of the most effective morality tests I've ever learned: Would I want this published on the front page of the Washington Post?
- Ask: How long would it take me to explain this? If it would take several paragraphs, chances are you are hiding something from yourself. The right decision is most often easy to explain.
- If the only explanation for your behavior is, "It's complicated", back up. Keep it simple.