Recently, when a rugby league player publicly claimed “I made racist comments but I’m not racist,” I ground my teeth and scowled. I didn’t mean it, though a popular catchcry with public figures of late, is not a legitimate defense, nor does it in any way excuse awful behaviour.
In a writing class some time ago, I taught students my own favourite catchcry “thoughts into actions, ideas into objects”. This is the action plan when dealing with an editorial comment like ‘show don’t tell’. Instead of saying ‘Marcia was angry’, we might indicate the level of Marcia’s anger by saying ‘Marcia clenched her fists and ground her teeth’ or similarly Marcia might say something like “You, are possibly the world’s most annoying human being.”
This method works. Readers (and editors) prefer it because this is how real people work. In real life our thoughts become our behaviour. Additionally, behaviour indicates personality. Readers aren’t stupid, they draw their own conclusions regarding behaviour. Readers bring themselves and their own interpretations to stories. However, when Marcia says something like “You are possibly the wold’s most annoying human being,” it’s hard to mistake her feelings.
Moving on then, to putting ‘ideas into objects’. When I teach this, I explain that the things (and people) with which a person surrounds themselves, are generally a pretty good indicator of their beliefs, ideas and personality type. My usual example revolves around someone who puts cubist paintings on their walls versus someone who prefers impressionism. Bold primary colours versus muted chintz. What kinds of books do they read, what’s in their music collection? Do they drink ‘real’ coffee or instant? Anyone who’s ever dated, knows we collect masses of information about others in this fashion.
Knowing this then, we know that the way a person behaves, the words they speak (most especially when they think no-one is listening) and the way they decorate their lives is a pretty accurate measure of their character. Why then, would anyone ever plead “I didn’t mean it”? More to the point, why would we believe them?