Friday, May 23, 2008

Non-Apology Apologies

Some time back my friend Russ made a practice at his blog of noting stylistic or rhetorical moves he could live without. Today provided an example of one that drives me nuts--the non-apology apology.

While giving an interview explaining her reasons for not exiting the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Hillary Clinton cited two examples of nominating battles that were not decided until June and referenced the example of Senator Robert F. Kennedy being assassinated in June of 1968 as one example of why she didn't "understand" the urgency to get her out of the race.

As someone whose profession demands that I talk for a living, often extemporaneously for long stretches at a time, I tend to want to cut some slack for the public figure who may occasionally flub the delivery of some point, though I could cite a long list of people who didn't get the opportunity to contextualize or explain some statement or other. Even not being a supporter of Senator Clinton's campaign, I find it hard to believe her comment was anything other than poorly stated. My instinctive and initial reaction when I heard it was, "Oww, she said that badly" not "Gee, she is saying she is hanging around in case someone takes a shot at her opponent." (The timing of the quote was particularly unfortunate coming on the heels of her much publicized argument that she was more capable of winning "white" voters.)

Truth be told, I don't think those who are trying to make political hay out of the remark really believe it is something more sinister than a misstatement. One way of judging that is how oblique critics will be in their condemnation. Respondents I saw on YouTube were quick to say that it would cost her, that it was outrageous, that it was inappropriate, but nobody said (or asked those who were commenting to explain) why. Perhaps part that reluctance is itself grounded in legitimate reasons such as not wanting to reinforce a hurtful sound bite through repetition, but perhaps part of it is a knowledge that some thoughts, when said out loud actually look and sound a bit less credible than an insinuating comment.

All of which is said by way of preface to say I would have had a lot more respect for Senator Clinton if she had responded to the criticism of her comments differently. This may have been one of those rare instances where an "I'm not even going to dignify that with a response" may have been appropriate. At the most, there could have been an acknowledgment that the comment didn't come out right. Instead, she issued a classic non-apology apology. She prefaced by explaining how and why the remark was meant innocuously but then went on to apologize for it, anyway, saying she regretted any pain or offense it "might" have caused.

Such a self-contradictory rhetorical move is a lose-lose situation. It allows news stations to lead with the headline "Senator Clinton 'Regrets' Remarks" or "Senator Clinton Apologizes for Remarks," which may be all anyone ever reads, thus cementing the sinister interpretation as a matter of fact. If she felt she had to apologize for it, then she is admitting, de facto, that there is something to apologize for.

Yes and no. The first part of the apology--the part that explains why an apology (that one is about to issue anyway) is unnecessary, is a standard ritual. It's meta-message (to borrow Deborah Tannen's phrase) is: "Despite what I'm about to say, I'm not sorry. I'm being forced to issue an apology but I want to make it clear to everyone, especially the people pressing hardest for the apology, that while they can make me say the words, I am not, in fact sorry."

Furthermore, the apology itself is one of those classic sorts that is qualified with "whoever might have taken offense." Combined with the explanation that nobody should have taken offense, the statement the apology to those who "might" have done so is actually more of an insult than an apology. The meta-message here is "if you are so stupid or thin-skinned as to need an apology, you are wrong, but here's an olive branch...let me spit in your eye and slip you some poison ivy while I give it to you." It also serves the rhetorical function of literally saying that what the speaker is sorry for is that the person took offense, not that the speaker gave it. We see this all the time in high profile apologies.

Personally, I found Senator Clinton's apology more offensive than her original statement, because the first statement was off-the-cuff and the latter was calculated. The first statement could be generously interpreted as innocuous if one cared to give her the benefit of the doubt (and if one didn't or wouldn't than what difference would a half-hearted non-apology make?), the latter was carefully crafted (probably written out before hand) and said after careful consideration. The first sent a plea to voters to let the process play out because strange things can happen in politics. The second sent the message to voters that she thinks we are incapable of intelligently and independently evaluating any news story or candidate comment for ourselves and are more likely to be swayed by empty rhetoric than a sincere, plain response.

It turns out one of Senator Clinton's spokespeople took exactly the first tactic, saying that reading anything more into the statement than an historical example was "outrageous." But here's the problem with trying to argue contradictory explanations. If any response to the comments other than one that acknowledges they were benign is "outrageous" than why did the candidate apologize for them? That's another thing I hate about non-apology apologies--they are usually vague enough to leave room for revisionist interpretation. No doubt we will eventually hear a parsing of the apology from some quarter that says she "regretted" making the comment because of the consequences of it rather than because there was anything wrong. A key component of any sincere apology is an admission of wrong--the foundation of the non-apology apology is the attempt to offer a formal apology, to go through the rhetorical motions, while steadfastly denying any wrong doing. All this does is make the apologizer look insincere and thereby make those who might have been inclined to accept that the original intentions may have been sincere less inclined to believe so.

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