On mistakes

by The Editor

TheThingAboutSERIES: ‘A mistake’ is often the excuse given in public life for some or other indiscretion. Public figures, sportspeople celebrities and politicians alike use the idea to explain away bad judgement. Often their explanation is legitimate; just as often, it is not. In other words, their ostensible ‘mistake’ was not actually an innocent oversight on their part, but a deliberate act of deceit. Saying it was a ‘mistake’, in such circumstances, help dilute personal responsibility. And so it is worth trying to better understand the idea and when or when not it is applicable.

On mistakes

By: Gareth van Onselen

21 January 2013

Understanding the nature of a mistake is an exercise in determining culpability.

That might seem counter-intuitive; for a mistake is not a deliberate act, rather the unintended consequence of some oversight, lack of awareness or misjudgment. Nevertheless, that one “admits” to a mistake suggests some personal responsibility for it and it is in assessing its cause that one weighs good intent against bad judgement, in order to assign to it the appropriate guilt. Some mistakes, therefore, are easily forgiven; others, less so. That determination, however, will define how any mistake is received.

Unfortunately, because the idea of a mistake has inherent to it legitimate excuse, those who have committed a deliberate transgression often abuse it. They frame a conscious act of deceit as a ‘mistake’, as if to suggest they are not entirely responsible for it; or, at the very least, to reduce their responsibility and turn attention away from their intent and towards those circumstances in which they acted. Put another way, they feign victimhood and deny agency.

In an environment where public accountability is weak, this kind of behavior is often indulged. Likewise, where victimhood and low-self esteem are prevalent the inclination, first and foremost, is to interrogate circumstance and process as opposed to personal responsibility. “Everyone makes mistakes”, we are told. No one, it would appear, makes decisions.

One can have a discussion about a particular mistake and try to understand its origins and nature but rarely do we look at how commonplace mistakes are generally. It is one thing for a mistake to be an exception, indeed that probably makes it easier to explain away, but when mistakes are rife, serious and repeated, inevitably there are other, more worrying, forces at play.

So circumstances are important but always one must remember, they are the conditions in which one acts, not the conditions that determine how one acts.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

To follow Inside Politics by e-mail simply go to the bottom of the page and fill in your address. When you confirm it, you will receive an e-mail the moment any new post is loaded to the site.