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Mistaken about mistakes

By Phillip J. Hubbell
web posted July 16, 2001

Gary Condit

Did Gary Condit make mistakes? Possibly, the most misused word in the English language besides "change" is the word "mistake." Everything these days seems to be a "mistake." After all, everybody makes them. They can't be helped. So, by calling every transgression a "mistake," those engaged in all manner of egregious behavior stand ready to beg the public's forgiveness when they get caught. It is interesting just how willing the public is to equate the word "mistake" with the word "crime."

The latest round of activities involving a certain Congressman caught with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar has resulted in his admission to making "mistakes." It is as though this is explanation enough and since everyone makes a mistake every now and then, we should just move on and say "there but by the grace of God, go I." The members of the media are quick to point out that "mistakes" were made and it is time to "move on." You get to move on after a mistake.

I believe that there should be more of a distinction between a mistake and a crime, or a mistake and a lie, or a mistake and a calculated act. A mistake is when you put on the wrong cufflink when going out. A mistake is when you forget to carry the 1, adding numbers together. A mistake is when you call someone from your past the wrong name, or show up to the movie an hour before it starts. A mistake is when you answer the door for the guy selling magazine subscriptions.

It is not a mistake when you lie to the police during a missing person investigation. It is not a mistake when you lie in court. It is not a mistake when you lie to the American people on national television. It is not a mistake when you take money for an action and then perform the action for which you took the money. It is not a mistake when someone puts $400,000 in an offshore bank account in your name in exchange for influencing your brother in law. It is not a mistake when you drive off with furniture that doesn't belong to you. It is not a mistake when you put a degree you don't have on your resume. It is not a mistake when you cheat on your wife, or rather; the act is not a mistake. The decision probably was. A mistake is an error, not an offense. A mistake is a blunder, not a transgression. A mistake is a gaffe, not a felony. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone doesn't commit felonies. Felons, at least the ones who are caught shouldn't get to "move on."

While changing the offending cufflink corrects the mistake, giving back the money does not erase the bank robbery. It is amazing to me that journalists, people who go to school in order to learn the intricacy of language and the nuance of different words and phrases, are the worst offenders. What is even more curious is their uneven application of this knowledge.....mistakes, if you will. I distinctly remember that Newt Gingrich committed sins and transgressions against his first wife, while President Clinton and Congressman Condit made mistakes. I may be mistaken about this, but on the surface, this seems less a mistake than a calculated effort to lessen one person's complicity and heighten another's in an instance of the same type of lapsed behavior. Could it be....bias?

As a people, our standards of education have been plunging like a barrel over a waterfall. As a result, we must be on the alert for the subtle use of language employed by reporters and pundits in the media to mislead us into thinking one man's actions are somehow less egregious an offense than another's simply because the offender shares the journalist's ideology. The myth of objective reporting has served the media well as they have pointed the masses towards the idea of bigger and more intrusive government being the good and limited government being the foundation of the extreme. While this may not be a crime, it has certainly not been a mistake. Calculated effort on the part of a malevolent force only becomes a mistake when they are caught.

The idea of a mistake implies an accidental outcome of an action or an unintentional error. Things done on purpose where the outcome can be expected as a result of the action are not mistakes, and they don't miraculously become mistakes when the perpetrator is found out. A crime on the other hand is an intentional act of known consequence. A mistake is an innocent act that results in error. A crime is an immoral act that results in damage to a person, society or property. So lets stop making excuses for lawlessness and immorality by defining immoral and criminal activity as mistakes.

Phillip J Hubbell is the author of Write Winger: Solutions for the Politically Oblique! Available from www.booklocker.com.

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