Easy Rationalizations & Harder Truths

Our days are full of rationalizations1… indeed, we are an extremely adept species at being able to dance around the real reasons behind our decisions and behaviours, and highly skilled at making them appear reasonable, justified, and even laudable.

Small wonder, for rationalizing helps us tolerate or avoid the anxiety, aggression, hostility, resentment, or frustration we may have about difficult situations or decisions. In fact we are so adept at rationalizing that our reasonings spring to mind the split second after a decision is made or an action is taken… and very often, without us being fully aware that we have skipped over the real reason or truth.

Everyone employs forms of self-deception from time to time; but what we can’t forget is that at its core, a rationalization is based on one’s favouritism towards oneself. Therein lays the danger, for when that favouritism is taken to the extreme, the results can be damaging to ourselves, to the company we work for, and to others. E.g., I’ll push this point through during the negotiation because… There’s no need to acknowledge my part in this conflict because… I’ll take credit for that person’s idea because… I’ll pass this rumour around because… I’m entitled to a sick day because…

History is full of instances where rationalizing resulted in ruinous outcomes. Let’s consider three historical events as examples:

  • Robert McNamara, one of the architects of the Vietnam War, using data, statistics and numbers, convinced himself and the powers-that-be that America was winning a war it was clearly losing. He later became haunted by his decisions to continue escalating the war based on his view at the time2. This is clearly demonstrated many years later, when in a 2003 documentary entitled “The Fog of War”, he revealed how haunted he was by his errors.
  • Unfortunately, Thomas Jefferson, America’s father of liberty, did not appear to possess the same regrets about his behaviour upon subsequent reflection; for although he proposed measures to eradicate slavery in 1776, by the middle of the 1780’s, he had rationalized the use of slaves in building Monticello, his home in Charlottesville. Furthermore, he had a tunnel constructed under the house through which slaves, hidden from view, could bring food and drink from the far-away kitchen3.
  • But let us not be so quick to throw stones at our neighbours to the south: A third example arises from a long, dark chapter of Canadian history: the residential schools. These schools began in the 1870’s, and the last one did not close until 1996. Their purpose: “civilize” Canada’s aboriginal peoples. As Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) states4: “During this era, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were placed in these schools often against their parents’ wishes. Many were forbidden to speak their language and practice their own culture.” If that weren’t already bad enough, many of these children were beaten and otherwise abused emotionally, physically, and sexually. As the TRC goes on to say: “While there is an estimated 80,000 former students living today, the ongoing impact of residential schools has been felt throughout generations and has contributed to social problems that continue to exist.” The irony could not be more pronounced: the rationalization was that this action would “civilize” ‘these people’. And how did we try to civilize them? Through force, brutality, abuse, shame, disrespect, and so on. It is one of history’s many tragedies.

The rationalizations in all three situations show self-favouritism: McNamara’s beloved tenet that data was all, Jefferson’s desire to promote himself as the freedom-loving emancipator while secretly profiting from the use of slaves, and the Canadian government’s ‘noble mission’ to ‘civilize’ the aboriginal people. One could safely say that Canada’s aboriginal inhabitants were considerably more civilized than our (mostly European) ancestors who arrived later and took over their territories.

How to tell if you’ve taken a rationalization too far?

  • You wouldn’t want your words or your behaviour to be exposed publicly.
  • You’ve convinced yourself that you had no part in creating the problem at hand.
  • You have a continued sense of self-injury or ill-usage and must prove to yourself point by point, how grossly you were treated and how you had the right to do what you did.
  • You feel a continuing need to justify your decision/words/behaviour, but your justifications give you little satisfaction and remain unpersuasive to those on the receiving end.

If any of the above statements hit home, then it’s time to inject some honesty and humility into the equation. E.g., “I’d like to think I did/said that because…, but the truth is, I… .” Then hopefully, as T.S. Eliot said: “…the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”.

1. A postulated psychoanalytic defense mechanism through which irrational behavior, motives, or feelings are made to appear reasonable. Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary
2. npr story on McNamara
3. Smithsonian.com article: The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson
4. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada


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