August 02, 2006

The very cypher of an excuse

Email from Richard Kingston points out something interesting in Mel Gibson's recent apology for his drunk driving and antisemitic tirades. Gibson has blamed loss of control due to alcohol -- normally he keeps his opinions better disguised -- but he spoke about his loss of control in a doubly indirect way. He might have said "I was completely out of control", or he might have moved back a step from acknowledging his responsibility for his loss of responsibility and said "I acted like I was completely out of control". But in fact he moved back two steps, and said "I acted like a person completely out of control."

Well, he's an actor, after all. I suppose he hopes, like all of us, to be judged by the depersonalized principles that Angelo explains in Measure for Measure:

Condemn the fault, and not the actor of it,
Why euery fault's condemnd ere it be done:
Mine were the verie Cipher of a Function
To fine the faults, whose fine stands in record,
And let goe by the Actor.

Richard (citing Shakespeare) wrote:

The psychological motivation for inserting the extra words is easy to see. But does it have a name (alteregofication?). And are there other examples?

It seems like a familiar rhetorical move, but none of the immediately-obvious search strings turn up many excuses besides Mel's.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 2, 2006 08:06 AM