The Art of Being Sorry: Lip Service, Empathy, and the Breeding of Covert -isms

Apologies are like assholes.  Most stink.

But, also like assholes, they’re necessary for getting shit out of the way.  And by shit, I mean the not-so-well-thought-out garbage that flows from most of our mouths in moments of less than stellar verbal acumen.  Especially when you’re a celebrity or politician.

We say things when and where we shouldn’t.  Our timing gets off or are filter springs a leak.  It happens.   When you’re a notable person, it happens in 3D.

Most often, our apologies don’t actually erase the shit.  And  they don’t reverse the hands of time to prevent the shit from ever happening.  No, most days, they just brush it to the side or, if you’re lucky, down a hole, so that we can pretend like it didn’t happen.   They are lip service.  Which is really all that you need with our modern, never-ending stream of information.  We live our lives like Facebook timelines, with the news and happenings of 2 hours ago a very long scroll away from our attention.

Like, say, Dane Cook’s apology for his incredibly crude joke about the Aurora, Colorado shooting.  A total brush to the side given in the least sincere of communication forms – a tweet.  In fact, I can’t quite figure out how someone jokes about something one night that they are “devastated by” the next day…  Then again, the article is now buried somewhere on my Flipbook feed, so I’ll move on.

Other apologies, pretty rare ones in fact, are the freshly enema-ed assholes of the world.  They do not stink.  The shit is not merely brushed to the side or ignored, it is scrubbed clean.  There is an empathic quality to these apologies.  And because there is no shortcut to empathy, these apologies often take time and much more than 140 characters to express.

Jason Alexander’s is my recent favorite in this category.  Like a 5th grade algebra test, his apology shows his emotional and mental work toward understanding.  It is an apology given by one who does not merely guess at the socially acceptable answer, but studies the underlying text.

And then there is the apology of Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll.  Upon first reading, I was completely unsatisfied.  Her words read like a PR homework assignment, full of the catchphrases and buzz words that were meant to make me feel good.  I didn’t want to feel good.  I wanted to be understood.  I wanted Lt. Gov. Carroll to understand what she said, who she said it to, and WHY it was problematic.  Not the, “Oh shit, I said something on camera that I usually just snicker to my girlfriends” kind of problematic.  But the “Oh shit, I am a black woman of unprecedented power and I just denigrated and belittled millions of other, largely powerless, black women and girls in an effort to save my own skin” kind of problematic.

Sure, it’s longer than 140 characters.  Equality Florida and the Lt. Gov.’s office have  now given reciprocal offers of assistance and cooperation.  And the Lt. Gov. has promised to treat all Floridians with “the utmost courtesy, respect and dignity.”  But her comment was not merely disrespectful or discourteous.  It was one which judged black lesbian and single women as less than she.  That is not a judgment that one shakes off overnight.  And because she has not, through her apology, shown her work, it’s not a judgment I’m convinced Lt. Gov. Carroll doesn’t still hold.

Does it matter if I or anyone else believes that someone has truly gained understanding of the why behind their apology?  I think so.

Think about it: even if someone doesn’t learn why what they said was wrong they do learn that they what they said was socially unacceptable.  And they (usually) adjust their public comments, but not their true feelings, accordingly.   There is no change of perception or greater acceptance, merely a more precisely drawn line of what is allowed in the current social climate.  Their -ism, whatever it was, is not erased.  It’s just covert.

Covert racism, born out of imperialist needs to maximize profit at the expense of racialized others, stands shielded by institutions, culture, stereotypical assumptions, and tradition. Whereas overt racism assumed blatant and insidious forms, covert racism hides behind the façade of ‘politeness’, political correctness and expediency. Racially coded words and calls for racial blindness obfuscate the reality of this subtle, subversive, and often hidden form of racism. Covert racism, just like its twin overt racism, is neither innocent nor harmless. The scars of covert racism, often seen in terms of increased levels of disease, negative sanctions, inadequate information, and lost opportunities – serve to continually victimize racial nonelites.

Rodney D. Coates, Abstract, “Covert Racism in the U.S. and Globally”, Sociology Compass(2008) (emphasis added)

It occurs to me that in our rush to be apologized to and recognized and assuaged, we may, in fact, breed a new brand of homophobia similar to the covert racism (and sexism) which now infects our American society.  I certainly can offer no legitimate criticism of Nadine Smith and Equality Florida’s decision to accept Carroll’s apology at face value and show every intention of being civil, if not bedfellows, in the future.  But I do wonder whether our leaders, or the rest of us, have a responsibility to insist upon something more.

The LGBTQ equality movement isn’t the first civil rights movement.  It has the luxury of learning from the mistakes and missteps of those movements which preceded it.  And as this movement is able to exert  more and more social pressure upon those in opposition, I wonder if here, too, we will witness the rise of a twin virus of coded words and subversiveness.

What a shame that would be.

Comments

In order to comment on BlogHer.com, you'll need to be logged in. You'll be given the option to log in or create an account when you publish your comment. If you do not log in or create an account, your comment will not be displayed.