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Excuses, Excuses

Hello, dear blog readers, single digit though you may now be due to my long absence. Some of you, disgusted by my inconstancy, may have fled to greener pastures, to bloggers who write consistently and don't just show up when they darn well feel like it. Of course, there are reasons for my extended absence. Academic writing demands, existential crises, not getting enough sleep, temporary loss of sense of humor, disturbing world politics, Covid depression, creeping senility. I will not bore you with a long, detailed list of excuses. Anyway, as Aldous Huxley said, "Several excuses are always less convincing than one." Suffice it to say that now we are here together again, we might as well talk about – excuses.

Not only the garden variety, as in, 'the dog ate my homework.' And speaking of this paradigmatic flimsy excuse, while its exact origin is unclear, some version of it has been around for centuries, all referring to dogs consuming paper products. For instance, in an 1808 edition of Sporting Magazine an article called "the humors of whist" tells the story of a group of card players engaged in the classic card game of whist. One player remarks that his companion would have lost the game had the dog not eaten the losing card.

An English Anglican priest wrote in about 1860 of the endless sermons vicars would give to bored, long-suffering churchgoers on Sundays. In one parish, when the vicar went on vacation and a young priest replaced him one Sunday, the young priest gave an exceedingly short sermon. He apologized to the clerk afterwards in the vestry, saying that his dog had been in his study and had eaten some of the pages of his longer planned text. “Oh, sir,” said the clerk, a bright beam of hope on his countenance, “do you think that you could spare our vicar a pup?”

The specific phrase "the dog ate my homework" gained popularity through the 20th century, even popping up in a 1988 comment to reporters by President Ronald Reagan, who said, "I had hoped that we had marked the end of the dog-ate-my-homework era of Congressional budgetry … but it was not to be."

Beyond this hackneyed sort of excuse, we should be able to find really clever, diabolical excuses in literature and in witty political repartee, shouldn’t we? As George Washington supposedly said, it is better to offer no excuse than a bad one. I went looking for bad excuses, famous excuses, brilliant excuses given by people with devious minds, fervent pens and sharp tongues. But alas! I discovered when I began looking, that it is not so easy. Insults are easy to find, in literature and from the mouths of famous people. We have seen in this very blog how literary and political figures from Shakespeare to Churchill honed the making of insults into a fine art. It is, in fact, interesting to juxtapose the excuse against the insult. Excuses seem to be weak, made when people want to deflect blame or responsibility from themselves, whereas insults, which can really hurt other people, often can seem clever and witty.

A search for excuses produces endless books, articles and self-help quotes on how to stop making them, why not to make them, and the psychological reasons why people make them. "Man up!" these books and articles often say (excuse me. I come from a previous generation. "Non-gendered-or-gender-fluid-or-gender-chosen-without-regard-to-sex-assigned-at-birth up!" I should have said. Whew). But if we want to make excuses, why can't we be clever about it?

In 1793, a letter to the editor of Universal Magazine was titled, "How to make excuses." The author of this letter states that "There is not a more useful accomplishment in genteel life than "the art of making excuses." I was quite taken by this notion. The author goes on to say that "bungling excuses are very common things, and at the same time very disgraceful and easily detected." He tells us to take pleasure from our excuses, for they can be, indeed, an art. "I was not long engaged in business or pleasure (for they are now generally mixed in pretty decent proportions) before I found out how useful it was to play one against the other, and between the two, I assure you, sir, I have not been without a decent excuse for the last thirty years." Well. The idea that there is an art to making excuses is a provocative one.

But perhaps we should back up. What is an excuse? An excuse is not a lie, not exactly. As Webster tells us, the verb, to excuse, means "attempt to lessen the blame attaching to a fault or offense; seek to justify or defend." Some psychologists claim that, when not done to excess, excuses "shift causal attributions for negative personal outcomes from sources that are relatively more central to the person's sense of self to sources that are relatively less central, therefore resulting in perceived benefits to the person's self-image and sense of control… generally, excuse-making appears to have positive benefits for the excuse-maker." That gets a little deeper than I intended this post to be, but it does give us leeway to excuse the excusers. Including me.

I have two big dogs, and they will eat almost anything. I will try to post more often, dogs notwithstanding, no excuses, no dogs eating any posts or parts of posts. Though they do like to chew on wood. But that's another story.

Till next time.

Excuses: Their Effective Role in the Negotiation of Reality.

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