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Ethics, Critical Thinking, & Language:

Using Words to Deceive

(8 Bogus Apologies)

Kenneth S. Pope, Ph.D., ABPP &

Melba J.T. Vasquez, Ph.D, ABPP

The following excerpt was adapted from the section on Language in the chapter on "Ethics & Critical Thinking" in Ethics in Psychotherapy & Counseling: A Practical Guide, 5th Edition (2016) by Ken Pope, Ph.D., ABPP, & Melba Vasquez, Ph.D., ABPP. © 2016 Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Sons

Language shapes the way we experience the world. What we call things matters.

An executive director hesitates to fire therapists who helped found a clinic and remained loyal through the lean years. Can she push these colleagues out the door and cut off their income just to raise profits by hiring less qualified therapists as independent contractors for lower pay? She fi nds it easier when she throws a word blanket over what she does and the people she does it to. She can use language to block our view. She never mentions firings or individual colleagues. Office bulletins describe a "multitude of unfortunate but inescapable factors necessitating a substantial but temporary reduction in force in order to maximize competitive preparedness and responsiveness in a volatile and challenging marketplace." Press releases hail an "innovative and state-of-the-art intervention and development strategy of providing maximum direction, safety, and assistance activity during the discrete transitional process steps associated with the temporary downsizing implementation phase and the arrangement of management-directed outplacement services." (This means the company has hired armed guards to escort each therapist out of the building, to help carry any belongings, and to make sure the therapist does not re-enter the building.) These descriptions hide the firings and the therapists.

Language can deceive by design. It conceals, misdirects, and creates the verbal equivalent of optical illusions. But even when used with the best of intentions, careless or bloated language makes it hard to think clearly. Many of us have gone missing in professional articles, last seen slogging our way through a paragraph packed with professional jargon, clichés, and not-quite-right words.

Too often we lose sight of ethical issues as they disappear in clouds of clichés, jargon, deceptive words, and careless language.

This section looks at common language patterns that hide or confuse ethical issues, responsibilities, or consequences. We present the patterns in extreme form so that they are easy to recognize and remember. If we learn these basic patterns in simplified form, we can spot them more easily when they try to sneak by us in the busy rush of our day-to-day work.

Most of us will find it easy to remember seeing these patterns in the newspaper, on television, and during our professional meetings. What is much harder—but much more useful—is to try to remember when we ourselves have fallen into these patterns.

We start with Jack, our hypothetical therapist, who did something unethical, was caught and formally disciplined, knows what he did was wrong, is sorry, and wants to make a public statement to take responsibility and apologize. Here's what Jack did: He stole therapy records of the clinic's famous clients, he altered them to make it look like the clients had described lurid sexual activity to their therapists, and then sold the records to tabloids.

In his public statement, Jack says: "I stole the patient files, added some lies to them, and sold them. I have no excuses or explanations. I am solely responsible. I knew it was wrong and would hurt innocent people who trusted the clinic, and I did it anyway because I wanted the money. I apologize to everyone I've hurt. I will do whatever I can to try to make things right."

Here are some alternate statements that show common language patterns that can interfere with clear thinking about ethics. As in the other sections on barriers to critical thinking, there is a brief description and example of each pattern.

1. Substitute the General for the Specific

In this pattern, both the specific individual and the specific act disappear. A description of a general category of acts and a vague reference in the third person replace (and hide) the specifics.

Example: "I believe that everyone knows that taking a patient's file without the patient's permission and using it for some purpose for which it was not intended is wrong. Anyone who does something like that is out of line."

2. Use a Conditional Frame for Consequences

The speaker shifts the focus to the question of whether the acts affected anyone. The apology is made contingent on how others reacted or were affected.

Example: "If my actions harmed, or even just offended, anyone-and I can well understand how that could happen-I apologize."

3. Use Denied-Motivation As Misdirection

Instead of honestly stating the motivation, the speaker seeks self-exoneration by talking about what the motivation was not. Denying an irrelevant charge that no one has made can be an effective rhetorical tactic. These denials are often true. For example, the person who repeatedly embezzles pension funds, uses substandard materials to build high rises, or speeds while drunk is probably not acting on a desire to make other people suffer.

Example: "I can honestly say that at no time during these unfortunate events with the clinic records did I ever intend for anyone to be hurt."

4. Use the Abstract Language of Technicalities

The speaker translates people and events into abstractions, using the jargon of technicalities.

Example: "I know that many of you have heard rumors and you deserve to know what happened. I want to acknowledge publicly, in closing this unfortunate chapter, that I did not fulfill all requirements in the JCAHO manual for the handling of charts. There were instances in which I reviewed and added information without following all the bureaucratic specifications for identifying the source of additional material, and I did not always follow the precise procedures for obtaining informed consent for release of information in transferring these charts to individuals who lacked proper authorization to receive them. I regret my lack of attention to JCAHO and similar regulations, and I assure everyone that I will be reviewing those regulatory specifications and will make every attempt to conform to those guidelines in the future."

5. Use the Passive Voice

The speaker disappears. Things are done without reference to who does them.

Example: "I know that all of you, like me, want to know the results of the extensive, no-holds-barred investigation that was conducted in light of recent allegations. I have been authorized to provide you with a complete report of the findings. Regrettably, the investigation confirmed that some files were taken without authorization, were altered, and were provided to those who should not have received them. Both the policies of our own clinic and the regulations of external authorities were violated. We wish to assure everyone that appropriate actions will be taken so that the problems will be addressed, and relevant steps have already been taken toward remedying this situation."

6. Make Unimportant by Contrasting With What Did Not Occur

The speaker anchors the presentation in scenarios of extreme consequences that did not occur. The contrast makes whatever may have happened seem trivial.

Example: "All of us have been concerned about the effects of recent events. As you know, allegations led to thorough investigations by several agencies. These investigations are now concluded. Let me assure you that, regardless of what you may have heard, no patient died or even suffered any physical injury whatsoever, whether chronic or acute, significant or trivial. I believe that some of you have been concerned that some of the patients might, as a result of these events, become distraught and take their own lives. However, I want to assure each and every one of you that no patient has committed suicide or, to the best of our knowledge, threatened or attempted suicide. As a final note, I believe that some of you were distressed that the events may have involved serious criminal behavior of the kind exemplified by what our state terms a Class A felony. However-and I want to emphasize this!-not only were there no charges of Class A felonies for anyone involved in this sequence of events, but no one from the District Attorney's office ever mentioned even the remote possibility of such charges. Although I think any of us might acknowledge that perhaps things might have been handled a bit better, it is important-and an issue of fundamental fairness-to keep what happened in perspective, to avoid the witch hunt mentality, and to remember that none of us is perfect. Thank you for your time and attention."

7. Replace Intentional Unethical Behavior With the Language of Accidents, Misfortune, and Mistakes

The speaker fails to mention making a conscious decision to profit by stealing charts, filling them with lies, and selling them to the highest bidder, which would strike most people as unethical. The description makes the speaker a victim of being an imperfect human, of lacking omniscience and infallibility. The speaker pushes the acts into the category of those random, inevitable mistakes that afflict us all and are beyond our control. At worst, they are a matter of having fumbled a matter of judgment, although if this construction is examined closely, it seems to assume that almost anyone would have difficulty judging whether stealing charts, inserting bogus material that will hurt patients, and selling them to those who will publish them is ethical. This may not be quite as hard a judgment as the rhetoric implies.

Example: "I wanted to address the unfortunate events that have troubled us all lately, so that you would understand what occurred and why. To my great regret, I have realized now in hindsight-hindsight being 20/20-that in handling clinic records I made some mistakes. I'm sure you all know how I feel about this and I hope you will be understanding and chalk this unfortunate error in judgment up to youthful indiscretion, my tendency to want to take on a little too much so that this clinic will function as well as possible, and to a momentary lapse of attention in the crush of daily demands that I face as clinic director. All of us make mistakes in our work here, and I want you to know how sorry I am for this misstep."

8. Smother the Events in the Language of Attack

Assuming that the best defense is a good offense, the speaker avoids responsibility by attacking others. Whatever the speaker may have done becomes trivial or justifiable in light of the terrible things other people have done. The language of attack stirs up emotional responses. It works against people joining together to examine the facts and their implications and sets people against each other, dividing them into "us" (the good people, unjustly attacked) and "them" (the bad people, who deserve what we can dish out). The speaker's rhetoric serves to draw listeners into his or her camp and to ridicule or intimidate those who are on the other side (i.e., the enemy). The rhetoric encourages listeners to evaluate claims not in terms of whether they are valid and relevant, but in terms of whether they support the listener's loyalty to one side.

Example: "Thank you for coming today. I will take just a few minutes of your time with the following statement about the recent events in which I have had to endure the most vicious attacks. It is a sad sign of our 'take no responsibility' culture that several patients who came to our clinic in need and were not turned away, have shown their gratitude for all we have done for them by trying to gain publicity for themselves-their 15 minutes of fame-and to enrich themselves at our expense by filing formal complaints. This is one of the most destructive aspects of the modern mindset: It's all me - me - me, without thinking of how such complaints might affect the rest of us who have dedicated our lives to healing the sick, comforting those in need, and helping those who turn to us in their hour of crisis. The selfishness of such formal complaints is hard to comprehend. These scurrilous complaints rob us of the time and resources that we would otherwise use to provide services to those who have nowhere else to turn. And it is for those people who have so little and suffer such great needs that this clinic has resolved to fight these complaints with every resource we can muster. We have already hired some of the most skilled and successful attorneys that this nation has yet produced, and they have already filed countercharges in civil court. The support staff aiding these attorneys have discovered, in the course of their extensive background research, some facts about those who filed complaints against us, that I believe will surprise the public and place these vicious complaints in their proper perspective. I've been asked by our attorneys not to reveal that material at this time, but I assure you that our attorneys will present it at the proper time-in court-should these complaints go to trial. Again, pursuant to the advice of our attorneys, I will have no more comment on this matter at this time. Thank you for your time and attention."

© 2016 Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Sons


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