“It’s not personal. I’m just saying what needs to be said.”
In the last few months, I’ve been hearing this statement frequently, or at least variations on it: Twice from people who are trying to jump start their own journalism careers by attacking me, and more recently from both sides of various online vendettas. And every time I hear it, I’m curious about how the people involved can say it.
Not, you understand, that I believe such comments for a second. When people focus on someone and attack them obsessively, claims that the attacks are impersonal quickly become unbelievable. Ditto for viciousness that is out of all proportion to the overt subject matter. A couple of people making this claim even made it immediately after explaining why the situation was personal, apparently never noticing the contradiction.
However, I do wonder why they even try to make a claim that so obviously fails to fit easily available evidence.
The most convenient answer would be that they are deliberately lying. Yet I hesitate to accept it, because to do so feels like evoking an explanatory principle to stop the discussion – like saying that opium puts people to sleep because it contains a dormitive principle. All you are really saying is that they are lying because they are lying. And my impression is that none of the people who make the claim are consciously lying.
Or, possibly, some of them are lying to themselves first, convincing themselves of the righteousness of their position before persuading anyone else. This tactic would allow them to make the claim of impersonality with utter conviction. At the same time, lying to themselves would let them ignore any evidence in their own behavior or words that contradicts the claim.
In other cases, denying personal motivations seems like a deliberate effort to elevate their words and actions. After all, in our culture, impersonal motivations are considered the only ones to legitimately act upon. Even in this post-modern age of doubts, to claim objectivity is also to covertly claim the highest of motives – to claim nothing less than you are acting like a scientist, that modern icon of impersonal reasoning.
By contrast, admit that you are attacking someone because you are jealous or because they made a comment that hit too close to home for you, and you might as well admit that your argument lacks validity. The first admission will be automatically equated with the second. Far better to claim a dedication to truth, or at least to disinterested criticism than to acknowledge that grubby bits of spite might be powering our actions.
Also, of course, if you stake the first claim of objectivity, you exclude your opponent from making a similar claim, casting them into the nether darkness of subjectivity, and all the evils that lurk within it.
Yet, even while I make this supposition, I wonder how such a claim can be sustained. I don’t know about anyone else, but when I try to make such a claim (and most of us do, at some time or the other), I am distracted by nagging doubts just beneath the level of consciousness. I start to notice that my actions and words are odds with the claim, and the claim soon collapses. Increasingly as I age, I find it mentally easier not to make such claims and suffer the embarrassment (if only privately) of backing down or continuing to assert what I no longer believe.
Could that explain the viciousness that often accompanies the claim? Could its makers be sensing the instability of their claim, and, instead of abandoning it, defending it as hard as they can? Are they, in fact, in denial?
I hope so, because otherwise I will have to admit that I don’t know people at all (a distinct possibility, I admit). All I really know for sure is that, when someone says that their behavior isn’t personal, you can be confident that it is not only personal, but deeply so.