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Open for Debate

Normative Entanglement in Public Discourse (Part 2)

19 April 2021

To read Part 1 of this series, click here.

Let’s start simple.

‘I’m hurt.’

Taken by itself, this tiny phrase has an obvious meaning. Without any context, however, it is difficult to guess what is the upshot of the statement. Notice how the upshot changes when we add different kinds of context. It could be:

  • Spoken playfully, during the course of a game, by a player who has taken some kind of hit, to call for a brief time-out, to call for another player to swap in, or directing teammates to ‘carry on without me.’
  • Spoken sadly, to a lover. ‘I’m hurt that you didn’t feel you could trust me with that situation; I want to know what’s going on with you, even when it’s difficult!’ This speaker may be trying to avoid implying that they blame the person for not trusting them; the ‘I’m hurt’ functions almost as an invitation.
  • Spoken by children in the course of a sibling squabble. ‘I’m hurt’ might function as an accusation, to get the other in trouble. It might function as a bid for parental attention or intervention, or as a pre-emptive justification for the speaker to strike back.

Each scenario provides not only an interpretive context for what is meant by what is said, but also a normative context. The seriousness of the claim, ‘I’m hurt’, can vary widely by normative context. In the first scenario, for example, we have a context where it is to be expected that players may sometimes get hurt, and that such injuries require appropriate adjustments but do not pose serious threat.

The normative context tells us what people’s obligations and entitlements are in this scenario, so it may be that a player is entitled to swap off the field if she is hurt, or that all players are obligated to cease play and honour a time-out in the case of possible injury. When a player makes this statement, then, she is invoking one of these norms—the entitlements and obligations that tell us about how the game should be conducted—and calling for some action or change on the part of the other players. This is normative entanglement: all the players are bound by a particular normative context, in which a person’s cry of ‘I’m hurt’ requires certain kinds of response from the others.

Games aside, this little phrase has tremendous range in public life. The politics of claiming ‘I’m hurt’ will also be dependent on context. Who the speaker is, what the occasion is, and who the audience is all play a role in determining what obligations and entitlements are being invoked. Let’s examine an individual case in public life.

In the famous 1995 BBC1 Panorama interview between Martin Bashir and the Princess of Wales, we have the following context: Princess Diana had been separated from Prince Charles three years, but she was still functioning in public life as a member of the royal family.[1] In this interview, she describes some of the pain and turmoil that she has been through in the years previous. She reflects on her thoughts and emotions at various points, as well as her experiences with post-natal depression, self-harm, and bulimia.

Here was a public figure, saying in public—in a broadcast interview—what amounts to an ‘I’m hurt’, including what happened, why it happened, and what it all meant for Diana. Throughout it, there’s a dialectical see-saw around what the upshot is of Diana’s ‘I’m hurt.’ Within this normative context, what is the upshot of her claim?

Two clear options are in play: accusation or admission.

Accusation: ‘I’m hurt’ with a focus on the passive voice, meaning I have been hurt [by someone: by whom?] and so I’m claiming my entitlement to apology and restitution by the offending party.

Admission: ‘I’m hurt’ with a focus on the description of the speaker. I’m hurt, I’m broken, something has gone wrong with me.

Three times Diana highlights the dialectical pressure from the press and others to bring this second option to the forefront.

Well, it [depression] gave everybody a wonderful new label – Diana’s unstable and Diana’s mentally unbalanced. And unfortunately that seems to have stuck on and off over the years.


Well, people were – when I say people I mean friends, on my husband’s side – were indicating that I was again unstable, sick, and should be put in a home of some sort in order to get better. I was almost an embarrassment.

When ‘I’m hurt’ is taken as an admission of something being wrong in the speaker, and this is particularly true for someone in public life, the normative upshot is that she needs to be dealt with. Whereas Accusation searches for an accused party whom the obligations for restitution can attach to, Admission stays home with the speaker as the source of the problem. Admission obligates the speaker to respond to the problem in herself. This shows up most clearly in the exchange below:

DIANA: It [Bulimia] was a symptom of what was going on in my marriage. I was crying out for help, but giving the wrong signals, and people were using my bulimia as a coat on a hanger: they decided that was the problem – Diana was unstable.

BASHIR: Instead of looking behind the symptom at the cause.

DIANA: Uh,uh.

BASHIR: What was the cause?

DIANA: The cause was the situation where my husband and I had to keep everything together because we didn’t want to disappoint the public, and yet obviously there was a lot of anxiety going on within our four walls.

Here, Diana articulates her resistance to the interpretation of her pain as an Admission that she was the problem, that she was unstable. Notice that when Bashir asks about the cause, Diana articulates her tactful resistance as well to the interpretation of her pain as an Accusation. The cause, she says, was the situation she was in… not anyone in particular, but the situation.

There are many ways an ‘I’m hurt’ claim in public life can be interpreted. Admission and Accusation are far from being the only options, but they have a tendency to masquerade as a polarising dichotomy, as if it must be one or the other. To make an Accusation is to lay a charge, obligating the accused to remedy matters. But this only succeeds if the charge finds the right party, the party who is normatively entangled in such a way as to be responsible for the harm done.

Here is the difficulty: such charges land easily on individuals, but they do not land so easily with group agents, particularly when it is not clear that any one person is to blame for the harm brought about by the collective dynamic. And when the charge does not land squarely at the feet of one distinctly culpable party, it is easy for it to be sent back to the feet of the speaker.

‘She is unstable.’

‘You shouldn’t be so sensitive.’

‘She should not have been walking alone at that time of night dressed like that.’

In Part 3, we will take a closer look at how some public figures and philosophers have handled the Accusation/Admission polarity and the difficulty in laying ambiguous or collective charges.