It is often the case in life that we find ourselves misled, thinking we know something we don't actually know. We may be misinformed, misled, deluded, ideologically blinded, confused by ambiguities or complexities — whatever the cause it happens to us all. It's part of what it means to be human.
We may act on this mistaken information, or we may pass it on to others. Later, we may have to face the consequences of our misguided actions and, when the truth arises, the consequences of having said things that weren't true. At that point, the question of intent becomes important.
"What you told me wasn't true," a friend will say. "Did you know that at the time?"
The friend wants to know about our intent: Were we lying to them? Or were we simply ourselves deceived? These seem to be our only options and neither is especially flattering. Yet the latter case — that we were simply misguided — is usually, and reasonably, considered a far less serious offense. We did not intend to deceive, so we are therefore "innocent." (That word here carries as well several of its lesser meanings and connotations — naive, gullible, credulous.)
In some cases, however, intent is less significant. If the consequences of our misguided actions are particularly grave, or if our untrustworthy statements were of particular import, it may not matter to others whether we are guilty of — to use Jim Hoagland's terms from the post below — credulity or chicanery. Sometimes, as in the case of those possessing stolen property, ignorance is no excuse.
Let me provide a trivial example from my own sad history.
Years ago I was in the awkward situation of trying to choose a birthday present for someone I had been dating for about five months. Five months is a tricky gift-giving time — the potential for either over- or under-doing it looms large.
I decided to enlist the advice of my then-girlfriend's best friend and, after several hours wandering with her through the King of Prussia Mall, I settled on a gift about which the best friend had said — and here I'm quoting — "Ooh, this is perfect! She would love this!"
As it turns out, the best friend was disastrously wrong. The gift was, to put it mildly, not well received.
I attempted to plead innocent due to credulity, but found that simply being misguided, in this case, did not mitigate the offense. The stakes were apparently such that whether or not I was simply acting on flawed intelligence was to her irrelevant. Whether due to credulity or chicanery, she felt I was no longer fit for the office of boyfriend, a post from which I was summarily dismissed. (No regrets, it spared me from the impending doom of Christmas shopping.)
It seems to me that such a circumstance requires a term. I have come to call it "Reagan's Bind." I outlined this concept in an earlier post, but here let me clarify with greater precision what I mean by the term.
Reagan's Bind applies to a situation in which both of the following are true:
A. A person's statements or actions can be accounted for by one of two, and only two, options: 1) malicious intent, or 2) credulousness.
B. The statement or actions were such that either motive/cause — malice or credulity — is equally damning.
I will occasionally on this site point out situations in which I believe a person is entangled in Reagan's Bind. You're free to disagree, of course, but doing so does not require you to refute the concept itself, only to show that it does not apply because either "A" or "B" above is not the case in this particular situation.
My invocation of Reagan's Bind in this post produced a series of complex analogies from people who objected to what they saw as the categorical application of the term to every instance of a misguided action or a false statement. I don't think I implied such a categorical use, and I certainly did not intend to.
In most situations where "A" is the case — and, because we're all human, "A" is often the case — "B" is not. In such cases, credulity is preferable to chicanery, and Reagan's Bind cannot be said to apply.
Yet I think we can all agree that there are cases — both hypothetical analogies and real-world instances — in which credulity seems even worse than chicanery. There are cases in which it does not matter whether a person spoke or acted out of malice or out of ignorance — both are equally appalling.
To spare us all the convolutions and revisions of further hypothetical analogies, let us consider again the namesake incidence of Reagan's Bind:
The American people were shocked to be presented with hard evidence that members of the Reagan administration were not only "negotiating with terrorists," but actually selling them weapons. What's more, the proceeds were being used to fund other terrorists in a flagrant violation of U.S. law.
The president's options were binary. Either he knew about these arms sales — in which case he had violated the law and his oath and was therefore unfit for office; or else this massive operation was going on right under his nose at the White House but he was oblivious — in which case he was so astoundingly incompetent that he was probably still unfit for office.
Reagan pled incompetence, arguing essentially that he was an idiot, but not a crook. He had no idea this was going on in his White House, he testified. When others' testimony indicated that the president had, in fact, been informed of this operation, Reagan was forced to argue that he neither understood nor recalled what had been explained to him — that he was, in other words, not merely irresponsibly out of touch, but also incurious and dim.
Please note that I am not attacking the former president, merely repeating his own argument. He enthusiastically asserted his own befuddled incompetence, since doing so was his only remaining defense against the charge that he knowingly and illegally sold arms to terrorists in order to fund an illegal proxy war.