Terrible Apologies

A Tumblr of Poorly-Crafted Apologies

For being only forty-five seconds, there’s so much in this public apology that doesn’t work, it’s hard to know quite where to begin.

Deen repeatedly references “the wrong” without actually talking about it; she says that she wants “to grow from this” without explaining what that will entail; and she seems to suggest that it only recently occured to her that “Inappropriate hurtful language is totally, totally unacceptable” (which is, of course, definitional).

But, of course, the most noteworthy failure is that it’s hard to escape the sense that Deen’s apology is entirely motivated by her desire to avoid the extreme cost of being identifed as a racist. Indeed, she concludes by asking for forgiveness not from the people she directly offended but from “my children, my team, my fans, my partners.” The references to fans and especially her team and partners comes precariously close to just saying what she really means, “Please don’t let this cost me anything.”

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Cross-posted at my blog:

Serena Williams on Wednesday offered a slightly new twist on the classic non-apology apology after she was quoted by Rolling Stone delivering shockingly insensitive remarks about the Steubenville rape case, in which a 16-year-old girl was raped by two high school football players. Here’s her full statement from today (emphasis added):

“What happened in Steubenville was a real shock for me. I was deeply saddened. For someone to be raped, and at only sixteen, is such a horrible tragedy! For both families involved – that of the rape victim and of the accused. I am currently reaching out to the girl’s family to let her know that I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article. What was written – what I supposedly said – is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame.

“I have fought all of my career for women’s equality, women’s equal rights, respect in their fields – anything I could do to support women I have done. My prayers and support always goes out to the rape victim. In this case, most especially, to an innocent sixteen year old child.”

And here’s the original quote as published by Rolling Stone in its profile of Williams. You’ll see why it didn’t take a leap for many to read the remarks as a version of the “she was asking for it” defense. (To say nothing of the fact that Williams decided to discuss the teen’s virginity.):

“Do you think it was fair, what they got? They did something stupid, but I don’t know. I’m not blaming the girl, but if you’re a 16-year-old and you’re drunk like that, your parents should teach you—don’t take drinks from other people. She’s 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn’t remember? It could have been much worse. She’s lucky. Obviously I don’t know, maybe she wasn’t a virgin, but she shouldn’t have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that’s different.”

It’s best not to say something terrible in the first place. But when you do, it’s best to apologize for saying that terrible thing, rather than apologizing that it was printed in a magazine and then implying that you might not actually have said the terrible thing in the first place. Better still, just instruct your publicist to draft a compelling apology … unless this is what the publicist thought was a compelling apology, in which case fire your publicist.

HT: Ian McDonald.

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Cross-posted at my blog:

In the wake of a controversy that erupted around an address by Center for Inquiry CEO Ron Lindsay designed to welcome participants to the Women in Secularism 2 conference last month, the CFI Board released a statement that reads, in part:

The Center for Inquiry, including its CEO, is dedicated to advancing the status of women and promoting women’s issues, and this was the motivation for its sponsorship of the two Women in Secularism conferences. The CFI Board wishes to express its unhappiness with the controversy surrounding the recent Women in Secularism Conference 2.

CFI believes in respectful debate and dialogue. We appreciate the many insights and varied opinions communicated to us. Going forward, we will endeavor to work with all elements of the secular movement to enhance our common values and strengthen our solidarity as we struggle together for full equality and respect for women around the world.

This is a terrible apology.

The Board doesn’t apologize to offended participants, who felt they were being lectured at by the CEO rather than welcomed by him and who then felt directly attacked by him, as when he directly attacked some of them in a blog post. (Lindsay’s own apology for that blog post is here.)

Instead, the Board chose to “express its unhappiness with the controversy” rather than with the way that its CEO handled his task of welcoming participants or engaging with them when they took to the internet to lament parts of his address that they felt were overtly critical of the role of feminism in secularism (as he suggested it was sometimes used to silence men).

It’s pretty much a guarantee that issuing a non-apology won’t achieve the result of bringing a month-old controvery under control; instead, it’s very likely to anger all the people who were offended in the first place.

HT: Olivia Hunt.

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From President Obama’s speech on drones and national security today:

It is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars. For the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live…

Let us remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes…”

He feels pretty bad about it, but really the terrorists should feel worse.

So, there’s that.

Niall Ferguson apologized today for recently making a series of bizarre “off-the-cuff” comments about John Maynard Keynes that were publicized and pretty much universally decried:

I had been asked to comment on Keynes’s famous observation “In the long run we are all dead.” The point I had made in my presentation was that in the long run our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are alive, and will have to deal with the consequences of our economic actions.

But I should not have suggested – in an off-the-cuff response that was not part of my presentation – that Keynes was indifferent to the long run because he had no children, nor that he had no children because he was gay. This was doubly stupid. First, it is obvious that people who do not have children also care about future generations. Second, I had forgotten that Keynes’s wife Lydia miscarried.

My disagreements with Keynes’s economic philosophy have never had anything to do with his sexual orientation. It is simply false to suggest, as I did, that his approach to economic policy was inspired by any aspect of his personal life.

This is a promising apology from a prominent person who made a public misstep, which (as readers of the Terrible Apologies blog well know) is pretty rare. But then Ferguson goes and messes it up:

As those who know me and my work are well aware, I detest all prejudice, sexual or otherwise.

With this sentence, Ferguson effectively excuses himself rather than waiting for the people he offended to excuse him after he has apologized. Others might have said, “We forgive you because you’ve issued a compelling apology and because, of course, we know from our interactions with you or your work that you detest all prejudice.” Or they might not have. But nothing good can come of someone who says something prejudiced then proclaiming that he isn’t at all prejudiced. It just rings impossibly hollow when someone says, “I’m obviously not racist …” or “I am well known for having a high opinion of several Jews ….”

Whatever comes next is bound to be bad news.

If you’ve done something wrong, it’s best to simply say, “I’ve done something wrong and I’m terribly sorry for it” rather than to explain that you’re really not the sort of person who does these wrong things. If you’re really not that sort of person, you either wouldn’t have said the sort of offensive thing you said or people who know you would be rushing forward to explain that you’re really not this sort of person.

In short, excusing yourself in the middle of “An Unqualified Apology” really just provides a big qualifier for that apology.

[Cross-posted at my blog]

A Republican lawmaker from Arkansas upset both Bostonians and non-Bostonians from both sides of the aisle this morning after he felt the need to tweet a pro-gun message around the time two armed police officers were being shot in their pursuit of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects.

He later pulled the tweet and “apologized,” as seen above … though his apology is for timing rather than content (which, apparently, he thinks is still totally appropriate). He also included this observation:

"I don’t regret the content as much as I regret the timing," Bell, R-Mena, told The Associated Press. "I really didn’t think about it going to Boston and was generally expressing my personal view of how I would have felt in that situation myself."


"I was basically just expressing my frustration, I guess, if I had been a person who was living there last night and my elected officials had prevented me from being able to defend myself and my family," Bell told the AP. "I would have felt pretty powerless and wanted to express that."

A better apology would have been much shorter and to the point, “I am extremely sorry for expressing what can only be called a ghastly opinion at what can only be called the worst possible time. Next week, I’ll go back to expressing my various ghastly opinions and I’m pretty sure none of you will notice since you didn’t really seem to notice before.”

This might be the most stunning one minute video I’ve seen.

The Republican Co-Majority Leader of the Oklahoma House of Representatives casually apologized yesterday for casually using an antisemitic slur during a debate on a bill to repeal an old law prohibiting retailers from selling their items at a loss.


“[Customers] might try to Jew me down on the price,” Johnson added. “That’s fine. You know what? That’s free market as well.”

After it was pointed out to him that the phrase “to Jew down” might be considered offensive by, say, Jewish people, Johnson half-heartedly apologized.

“I apologize to the Jews,” he said, to laughter from his colleagues in the House. “They’re good small business men as well.”

It’s worth noting that there isn’t a single Jewish member in either house of the Oklahoma Legislature.

Reached for comment by the Tulsa World, Joe Griffin, spokesperson for Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon (R-Lawton), said Johnson “is not the first person to make a comment they regret. The chamber accepted his apology and has moved on.”

You watch and tell me if he’s actually apologizing here, seconds after using a slur and learning from a slip of paper someone hands to him that it is, in fact, offensive to use such a slur.

Oh, I’ll just tell you: He isn’t apologizing. He doesn’t care in the least. It’s actually funny to him. His colleagues, you’ll note, are laughing too.

HT: Michael Tofias.

[Cross-posted at my blog]

I would stand in front of them and tell them, ‘go to hell.’

Conservative Radio Host Bob Davis, speaking about the Newtown families who he claimed were infringing on his gun rights. Matthew Keys notes that Davis later apologized for his remarks.

My own sense is that he didn’t actually apologize at all, though he expects people to take what he said as an apology. What he actually said was:

I do not hide behind flowery language I do not pull my punches ah, when I’m passionate about something it comes out on the air, it’s real and it will always be that way …. What I said Friday was an emotional predecessor to a thought which can and will find a more refined expression by me and others in the future, I guarantee you. But this isn’t a newspaper or a magazine and we don’t filter our views or commentary before we say it, it is radio, it’s immediate, it can be emotional both in its immediate expression as well as its response. It’s unrealistic, I think, to expect a compete filter for anybody doing live media …. Um, but there are those who would silence the opposition in their desire to have their way, majority rule not withstanding. We all have the right to express our opinions on any subject.

So, yeah, not an apology.

Instead, he made it seem like critics of his ridiculous and offensive remarks were attempting to stifle his freedom of speech, he promised his listeners that they’d continue to get the unvarnished “truth” from him in the future, and he made clear that he’ll continue to explore the idea that led him to want to tell the Newtown shooting victims and co-victims to “go to hell.”

New Hampshire state Rep. Peter Hansen referred to women as “vaginas” in an email to colleagues sent on the Legislature’s official internal listserv. In response to a message debating a “stand your ground” measure being considered by the State House, the Republican lawmaker wrote:

What could possibly be missing from those factual tales of successful retreat in VT, Germany, and the bowels of Amsterdam? Why children and vagina’s of course. While the tales relate the actions of a solitary male the outcome cannot relate to similar situations where children and women and mothers are the potential victims.

Hansen initially remained defiant in response to criticism, explaining that he had a “fairly well educated mind” and did not need his colleagues to act as “self-appointed wardens” to his speech. He went on to suggest that anyone offended by his use of female genitalia to describe women everywhere should “re-examine [their] psyche.”

But his critics persisted and Hansen relented over his figure of speech, at least a little:

It was not, and is not, my intention to demean women at any time. It is apparent that the intent of my remarks has been misinterpreted, the true goal of the message lost and for that I apologize to those who took offense.

“I have a fairly well educated mind”; “re-examine your psyche”; and “the intent of my remarks has been misinterpreted” are not the words you’re looking for when you apologize. Note, also, that he apologizes that the true goal of his message was lost to those who took offense; he specifically does not apology for being offensive.

HT: Jacob Levy.

Cross posted at my blog.

I am not a prejudiced person…I have built Habitat homes for colored people.

County Commissioner Jim Gile of Saline County, Kansas, apologizing for using the term “n*gger-rigging.” Gile said he meant “jury-rigged.”

In his apology, “Gile said he also has a close friend whom he regards as a sister who is black,” the Salina Journal reported. “‘I don’t ever do anything bad and don’t know how to do anything bad. People know I am not,’ he said.”

That second part of the quote … well … it pretty much works to negate the first part of the quote.

But most importantly, from the perspective of those who care about terrible apologies, it’s noteworthy that Gile said in his apology that he meant to say “jury-rigged”: “I had it (jury-rigged) on my brain and this came out.” But when he was asked in the moment to repeat what he’d said, his reply was “Afro-Americanized.”

So, yeah, Gile was thinking something racist, then he said something really racist, and then he lied about what he meant to say when he “apologized.”