Beyond ‘It Was Just a Joke’: Denial of the Obvious as a Distraction Technique

During the 2016 Republican National Convention, Scott Baio sat down with MSNBC’s Tamron Hall to discuss a tweet he’d made about Hillary Clinton. The tweet contained a photo of Clinton standing in front of the word “COUNT,” with her head obscuring the “O”; the meme contains text referring to the blocked letter. Baio had also added the text “This may be the best meme out there. #NeverHillary @realDonaldTrump”.

The message here is plain: Baio is highly amused at the misogynistic insult created by Clinton’s head placement. Because Baio had discussed how Trump’s slogan of “Make America Great Again” means, to him, returning to an era of strong religious values, Hall questioned how that tweet’s obvious slur accomplishes that goal.

One of the standard responses to challenges of inappropriate humor is, “Hey, it was just a joke.” Baio could have taken this tack; indeed, he does immediately afterward, in a discussion of his tweet featuring Michelle Obama making a hostile face.

But with the discussion of the tweet about Clinton, Baio takes a different tack: Utter denial. He claims he’s not making any commentary at all. It’s simply a photo. “I just put it up there,” he claims. We can make of it what we will.

During the same convention, Melania Trump borrowed a passage from Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC speech. The plagiarism was blatant. But Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, denied it even happened, claiming that the similarities were due to “common words and values.” Sean Spicer of the Republican National Committee went farther, comparing Ms. Trump’s speech to Twilight Sparkle’s values.

Both of these are issues that could have been resolved very quickly. As noted on CNN, Obama himself was accused of plagiarizing Deval Patrick, he admitted it and apologized, and the issue was dropped. In the second case here, Ms. Trump’s speech-writer did eventually admit it and apologized, and the issue was dropped.

Scott Baio calling a Senator, a Secretary of State, and a First Lady what that meme called her is far more egregious, but at the same time, Baio is less relevant to the current world stage than Ms. Trump is. Had he said, “You know, Tamron, I guess that was overboard” or even the standard “Lighten up, Tamron,” that would have been business as usual. Instead, he deflected by pretending that the joke didn’t even exist in the first place.

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Both incidents reflect a powerful strategy in the struggle to get people—particularly men—to take responsibility for inappropriate actions. While Melania Trump is female, it was the males around her—Manafort, Spicer, and her husband—who dug in with the narrative that what we could all plainly see had happened hadn’t happened. It was a female speech-writer who finally admitted that yes, allegedly due to a misunderstanding, she had included Obama’s words in Trump’s speech.

This is not by any means a new strategy. It has evidence now that everything of any significance is being recorded; “I didn’t say that” can be answered by simply rewinding the tape. But even with that ability, Baio and Trump’s proxies insisted on staring directly into reality and denying its existence. And in Baio’s case, the brazenness worked, at least in the context of the interview: Hall moved on, and Baio never had to take responsibility for the joke at all.

What makes this strategy more frustrating than the “It was just a joke/misunderstanding” defense is that it can prevent substantive conversations from taking place. People cannot have a substantive conversation about the morality of gendered insults if one person denies the complete existence of the insult; people cannot have a substantive conversation about the ethics of plagiarism if one person denies the complete existence of the plagiarism.

If I have to expend a great deal of energy simply getting someone to admit to having been involved in a wrongdoing for which there is more than sufficient evidence before we can even talk about the wrongdoing itself, there are many conversations I may simply walk away from entirely.

That is at the heart of the strategy: Play stupid until the other side just gives up, and you won’t have to take responsibility for anything.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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