How “I’m not perfect” became the perfect political defense.
Somehow, “I’m not perfect, but” has become the perfect political defense for all kinds of bad behavior and obnoxious statements. Perfection has always been a haunting concept in our culture. Christians are taught to aspire to perfection. The corporate world craves perfection as does the world of sports.
The pedagogy of perfection has always contained the same lessons.
- Nobody is perfect because perfection is impossible.
- Successful people attempt to attain perfection.
Vince Lombardi, the Green Bay Packers Hall of fame coach, said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can attain excellence.
Speaking for many, Bob Marley said, ““Who are you to judge the life I live? I know I’m not perfect – and I don’t live to be – but before you start pointing fingers…make sure your hands are clean!”
Jesus remarks, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In a statement that should send shocks through the nerves of the wealthy, Jesus says, Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
Some Christians believe in “entire sanctification,” the doctrine that a person can be “perfect” and without sin. John Wesley taught that that a person could be made “perfect in love.” He testified that he had known one such person in his life – one of the Methodist lay preachers.
When the idea of perfection mixes with politics, we are no longer dealing with religious doctrine or philosophical concerns, we are dealing with the sneaky ways of political consultants and advertising executives. In the land of politics, words are used in any way possible to gain an advantage.
Playing with Words
Political experts play with words, manipulate words, and use words in untruthful ways. A favorite figure of speech for those who deceive with words: catachresis. The Latin word for this figure of speech suggests its deviancy: abusio. The term refers to the misuse or abuse of a sacred or holy term. Political experts use mixed metaphors and ordinary words in inappropriate ways to create a different meaning than the word intends.
Frank Luntz, the “word man” of the Republican Party, persuaded conservatives to stop talking about “global warming” because it sounded too scary and suggested human agency. Instead, he brought “climate change” into our public discourse on the grounds that “climate” sounded kind of nice (think palm trees) and change just happens, with no human agency. Luntz suggested Orwellian language, words like healthy, clean, and safe even when talking about coal or nuclear power plants. Hence “clean coal.” Conservative legislation that increases pollution is called the Clear Skies Act.
Words that have been sacred words in America, “democracy,” “freedom,” and “patriotism” have become words used to mean something different from their original meanings.
These are examples of a kind of catachresis. It is a misuse of language and presents a new reality. These tropes can frame politics undemocratically to give unfair advantage. These tropes mislead, misinterpret, and misuse language to benefit the politician.
The particular word that claims attention here is perfection. There’s a new attitude about perfection itself, an attitude that from a philosophical point of view is very concerning. I think that this attitude can be traced to the political philosophy of liberalism. Perfection, a holy term, a term suggesting holiness, has become a “devil” term for bad behavior; not just an excuse but a justification.
Liberals Are at Fault
The attitude shows up most often in the slogans liberals often use: “Who am I to judge another Christian? After all, when it is all said and done we are all sinners.” “It is up to each of us to do the best we can by loving one another. What I eat and with whom I sleep, therefore, is my business as long as I do not hurt anyone.” “To be a Christian is not to get hung up on moralistic judgments but to care about those who have less than we have.” “Nobody’s perfect.”
These slogans are well-intentioned. The originating purpose of such sayings seems to derive from a desire to push back against judgmentalism and self-righteousness. The obvious reality: Nobody is perfect.
Conservatives Have Learned from Liberals How to Abuse Words
Conservatives have discovered the power of the word “perfection” by changing its meaning and context. When a statement contains a truth like “He’s not perfect,” there’s a tendency to expand the partial truth to a complete truth. “He’s not perfect,” is true, but it is not a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.
Now, conservatives have hijacked the liberal formula and turned it into a political defense of bad behavior. “He’s not perfect,” but he gets the job done.” Character no longer matters.
For instance, Rep. Lauren Boebert was removed from a performance of Beetlejuice for an array of embarrassing actions. These are actions that would have ended a politician’s career twenty years ago. Now, Boebert is just being human. We all, after all, make mistakes.
“I’ve tried to handle it with strength and grace as best I can, but I simply fell short of my values on Sunday,” Boebert said.
What actions led to this mea culpa? Boebert and her campaign manager initially denied that she was vaping and said she was removed for being too loud.
Surveillance video obtained by the Denver television station 9News shows the congresswoman openly vaping during the performance.
Her responses were a variation on the “I’m not perfect” figure of speech. Her response sounds tongue in cheek rather than an act of contrition. “It’s true, I did thoroughly enjoy the AMAZING Beetlejuice … and I plead guilty to laughing and singing too loud!” Boebert posted, along with an emoji of a snickering face.
After the facts came out, Boebert changed her tactics and offered an apology: “ve tried to handle it with strength and grace as best I can, but I simply fell short of my values on Sunday. That’s unacceptable and I’m sorry.”
A second example pops up in the current California governor’s election. Bill Simon, the Republican candidate for governor, hits the airwaves today with an unusual advertising tactic for a politician — a commercial in which he acknowledges past troubles, admitting “I’m not perfect.” “I’m not a politician, and I’m not perfect,” says Simon during a biographical 30-second ad in which he details his accomplishments in business and charity.
Simons, trailing in the polls, has taken the advice of an advertising firm to restart his campaign by admitting he is not perfect. The advertisers, in other words, see “I’m not perfect” as a strength that may translate to winning the election. The advertisers are convinced that lack of perfection has morphed into political gold.
“I’m Not Perfect” – The Perfect Excuse
Mike Huckabee offers the perfect expression of the “I’m not perfect” defense: “Hey, Donald Trump is far from perfect, but then, so am I,” Huckabee said. “And so are you.” Huckabee puts everyone in the rotten barrel, shrugs, and endorses Trump as the best imperfect candidate. Perfection has moved from the heights of human attainment to the bottom of the barrel as a defense for ongoing bad behavior. Politicians admit to not being perfect, but they claim to be fighting for America. Politicians lack subtlety, insult too many people, and tell constant lies, but no one is perfect. What’s important is to remember that the politician gets the job done.
Character, once considered indispensable for politicians, has lost its place in the pantheon of political virtues replaced by pragmatism, transactional behavior, and denial of accountability.
“He’s not perfect” confesses to character flaws. Used as a defense for bad behavior, it becomes an admission that people don’t care about character. Lack of character becomes a virtue in fighting against liberals. Lack of character shows a sort of strength at standing up to the “fake media” who constantly report on the character flaws of the “not perfect” character.
The politicians have created a rhetorical world where they are no longer accountable. “He’s not perfect, but” has the power to cover a multitude of sins.
Jesus may not fall for the “perfection con.” He says, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”