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  • The Diacritics 6:00 am on October 4, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , bill clinton, clinton, , , excuse, , lewinsky, public apology, scandal, sex scandal, , , tiger woods,   

    #sorryimnotsorry: good apologies gone bad (Part 2/2) 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    In 1998, allegations that then-President Clinton had engaged in a sexual relationship with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, compounded an ongoing grand jury trial investigating the president’s role in several unrelated political scandals.

    America’s attention immediately became fixed on the sex, of course; political intrigue can only hold the nation captivated for so long. President Clinton asserted that he hadn’t had “sexual relations” with Lewinsky, based on his understanding of the definition of the phrase. Because of the trial and Clinton’s alleged perjury during it, the House of Representatives began impeachment proceedings, which were followed by a three-week trial in the Senate. The Senate trial concluded without a successful vote for impeachment. On August 17, Clinton acknowledged in a televised address that he had “misled people” with his testimony by telling the truth as it was asked for but not volunteering information. His statement lasted for a little over four minutes and 542 words.

    Clinton’s statement is part confession, part apology, and part justification. He confesses that he “did not volunteer information” and that he indeed “had a relationship … that was not appropriate.”

    For most Americans, this wasn’t the first time they had heard rumors that this was true, but it was the first time they had heard it directly from the president. It was new conclusive information, and Clinton was acknowledging responsibility. That part was a confession. Continuing, he apologizes for his actions, saying he “deeply regret[s]” that he had misled people.

    Clinton’s choice of “regret” in this sentence is curious because while he acknowledges that he is “solely and completely responsible,” the word “regret” has a shade of meaning which implies an absence of free will in an action. Merriam-Webster’s first definition of “regret” states that it involves feeling “sorrow aroused by circumstances beyond one’s control or power to repair.” One can regret something over which he has no control. One might regret more often in situations where one doesn’t have control, and one might be sorry or apologetic when one does have control.

    In the O.E.D., “regret” is defined in relation to “external circumstances or events” before it is defined in relation to “something one has done or omitted to do.” One could argue both sides.

    Of course, Austin’s second reason for studying excuses (see my previous post) is that our words are inadequate and arbitrary, and that we shouldn’t be troubled by this (“words are not … facts or things” [182])— so perhaps we should only take Clinton’s explicit admission of responsibility and ignore the shades of meaning in his word choice. While he might be a gifted craftsman of language (as many politicians are), his understanding of regret may not gel with ours.

    Finally, Clinton justifies why he answered questions the way he did: to protect his family, and to avoid giving personal answers in a politically inspired lawsuit.

    Interestingly, he finishes with a sort of scolding — attempting to make those who followed the sex scandal feel guilty for doing so, and chastising his detractors for confusing private and public life and distracting the nation when, he says, there are more important things to be done. This does not form part of his overall apologetic statement, but it does add an interesting twist, returning the moral high ground to himself — because while he did something wrong, his opponents were wrong to pursue it in the contexts they did.

    And he doesn’t only put the weight on his opponents, but on his whole audience, encouraging them to move past this and return to working on “the promise of the next American century” — a task which no American would actively ignore. By saying this, Clinton shifts the discourse from private to public at the end.

    The first rough third of Clinton’s statement is given over mostly to establishing his guilt and confessing about his behavior. He explicitly expresses “regret” only once, at the end of the first third. In the second third, he attempts to explain his motivation for hiding his behavior. And at the end, he spends the last third of his total time engaging in a scolding of his listeners and detractors. This distribution is curious — the actual “apologetic” part of his statement is only two-thirds of the total. This fact gives us some insight into the machinations of Clinton’s mind at the time — his shame, his sorrow, and finally his defiance.

    When the many mistresses of golfer Tiger Woods, a man who had been (until then) one of the few sports superstars unsullied with professional or personal scandals, came forward in late 2009 with their stories, the media erupted with rumors, photographs, and details. This was exciting; this was new; this was a brilliant chance to expose the failings of a celebrity who had been very guarded about his personal life. At first, Woods didn’t acknowledge or deny his actions; soon afterward, he made a brief statement acknowledging some “personal failings” but didn’t offer any details. Finally, on February 19, 2010, over three months after suggestions of his affairs first came to light, he delivered a 14-minute, 1,521-word statement acknowledging guilt and promising atonement.

    Woods’s apologetic statement comprises all four of our categories: it is part excuse, part justification, part apology, and part confession. This is the first time in public he has acknowledged the extent of his extramarital affairs. He spends much of his time excoriating himself, lambasting his character failings, and promising change.

    Like Clinton, who referenced his relationship to God and his family as the only relevant ones in dealing with his personal transgressions, Woods invokes his faith, Buddhism, as a reason the public can be assured he’ll atone and behave well. This appeal to a higher power, while it might be genuine, is also convenient: no one can deny a man his most personal relationship to his religion. Whether Clinton, Woods, and others are truly atoning for their transgressions in the context of their religions is not something which the public can (easily) challenge.

    In 1,521 words, Woods says “sorry” just three times — “so sorry,” “deeply sorry,” and “truly sorry.”

    It seems to have become the norm to qualify “sorry” in apologies, because there seems to be a general acknowledgment that saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough — one needs to be “deeply sorry” or “profoundly sorry” or to “sincerely apologize,” because being “sorry” or simply “apologizing” doesn’t properly convey the type of apology that the speaker believes the situation demands.

    So Bill Clinton “deeply regret[s]” his actions and Tiger Woods is “deeply sorry” for his behavior. Indeed, it would probably seem empty if Clinton just “regretted” or Woods just said he was “sorry” — those words are tossed around easily, the public believes, and they don’t suffice. One needs to add an adverb, a qualifier, an indication that the apology is genuine (“genuinely sorry”) because the terms “sorry” and “apologize,” presumably after countless apologies over the years, have lost their emotive force.

    Austin notices this: “it is interesting to find that a high percentage of the terms connected with excuses prove to be adverbs” (187).

    It is notable that Woods waits until almost a third of the way through his apologetic statement to explicitly say what he did: “I was unfaithful. I had affairs. I cheated.” Until then, he was speaking generally about his misbehavior and his shame.

    He also offers a few explanations for what he did. Are Woods’s arguments that he acted the way he did because “felt that [he] had worked hard [his] entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around [him]” excuses or justifications?

    Out of context, one could argue that those remarks are simply excuses. But because Woods is not shunning responsibility elsewhere in his statement — “I brought this shame upon myself” — we can more easily argue that he is justifying his actions: offering explanations but not avoiding culpability. And finally, like Clinton, Woods transfers the weight onto the listener — “I am asking for your help” — and shifts the discourse from private to public. He’s not absolving himself totally of responsibility but he’s adding some responsibility for the audience.

    The first half of Woods’s statement is given over to a self-excoriation and the second half is spent explaining the motivations behind his behavior. Unlike Clinton, Woods never shifts blame or scolds; he only excuses, confesses, apologizes, and attempts to justify.

    I wonder if this is because of the different roles they play in the public sphere — Clinton is a chosen official, so one could argue that he stands on ground high enough to scold others; Woods was never chosen to be a public figure, and so he never had that sort of moral position.

    Woods is not unaware of his public role. The fact that he was so secretive about his personal affairs before recently shows that he has (or had) a good understanding of how to maintain his image. And as a part of that understanding, Woods is aware that he does not have the moral ground, like Clinton might, to scold the media and public for following his private life so closely.

    On the other hand, Clinton was elected by the public to serve the public — and a distraction from that, Clinton might feel, doesn’t only harm himself but the country. The fact that Clinton holds an elected position might give him the moral force to not just apologize but to chastise.

    Why do personal, private transgressions of behavior warrant public apologetic statements? Well, the traditional argument goes, public figures must apologize to those who viewed them as role models, since a figure’s behavior, in harming his/her image as a role model, has harmed his/her audience.

    And it’s quite obvious that sexual transgressions are the most popular. Sex sells — and sexual deviancy is particularly frowned upon in our society, more so than other personal or professional misbehavior.

    Austin deals with excuses because they are of great importance — not just from a philosophical point of view (in terms of moral language), but also from legal standpoint. Sometimes accused people issue apologetic statements after it’s impossible to be prosecuted for a misdeed. O.J. Simpson, who was embroiled in the legal proceedings involving the murder of his ex-wife and another man, wrote a book called If I Did It several years after charges against him had been dropped.

    The book was widely interpreted as a confession, but since charges had been dropped Simpson couldn’t incriminate himself. Excuses aren’t just a part of everyday language; they are an important part of formal, prescribed language as well.

    The differences between the apologetic statements of Tiger Woods and Bill Clinton, ostensibly for the same type of offense, can be understood well in terms of the roles that each public figure plays. Woods, an athlete who wasn’t chosen or didn’t choose to enter the public eye, doesn’t have the sort of moral sway that Clinton, a chosen official, has.

    And so that’s why the timbre of each apologetic statement is different — Woods is solemn and shameful, and Clinton is sorrowful at the beginning and defiant at the end. Clinton can afford to be brief; Woods elaborates. Clinton can look away from his audience; Woods must hold a press conference. And Woods is beholden to include all four elements of the apologetic statement, whereas Clinton does not have to excuse himself.

    What are your thoughts on public apologies? Should public figures have to make them at all? And if they’re missing one of the four categories outlined in my previous post (excuses, justifications, apologies, confessions), does that remove some of their power? Are some categories more persuasive?

    • Bander Alfraikh 8:04 am on October 4, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      This relates to morality and how each one of us conceive it to be. Mr. Clinton’s defence came mainly from his abilities as a lawyer. In all the procedings involving his act he showed himself to be a shrewed lawyer. One can say his “skill” was a bit ahead of his “virtue”. Woods was no less skillful when he cited Budhism. Sex does not carry the same cononative burdens in Budhism. Some may have taken Woods to be feeling sorry and apolegetic; I thought he was justifying. The consequences of both acts are different for both of them. The decisions they took in the form of apology were shaped by the fear of those consequences .

  • The Diacritics 5:37 am on October 3, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , crime, , excuse, , , , , oj simpson, punishment, ,   

    #sorryimnotsorry: good apologies gone bad (Part 1/2) 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    A recent meme that’s been making the rounds on the Internet is the pithy, defiant Twitter hashtag #sorryimnotsorry: “Sorry [that] I’m not sorry [for my actions, clothing, attitude, words, etc.].”

    It’s the perfect little encapsulation of a pervasive attitude in our generation. Back off; it’s your problem that you have a problem with my conduct. (There’s even a book out called Sorry I’m Not Sorry.)

    Saying “sorry” is a funny thing. As a law student, I’ve been thinking about “#sorryimnotsorry” and how many parties in our readings are running that idea through their heads when they lose a case.

    Some of them should be sorry, to be sure. But if they aren’t, maybe they’re not sorry for a reason: they can excuse their behavior. Or maybe they can offer a justification that absolves them of guilt. (Or maybe they’re just jerks.) In our Criminal Law class, we are taught to examine a charged crime first in terms of the act itself, then the defendant’s mental state, and then finally any possible excuses or justifications that could explain and/or mitigate the crime.

    J. L. Austin, in his chapter “A Plea for Excuses” in Philosophical Papers (3rd edition), discusses ordinary language from the point of excuses, exploring “what we should say when, and so why and what we should mean by it” (181; emphasis in original), in order to draw some conclusions about the use of moral language to talk about behavior. He offers three justifications for this approach:

    (1) that “words are our tools” and they should be “clean,” i.e. understood by us when we use them;
    (2) that words aren’t “facts or things” — they can be arbitrary or imprecise or inadequate; and
    (3) that the words available in a natural language suffice to satisfactorily convey all distinctions that we might like to make (181-2).

    Austin draws a distinction between excuses and justifications, but we might also add apologies and confessions into our discussion, too.

    An excuse, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary in its sense most relevant here, is “that which is offered as a reason for being excused; sometimes in bad sense, a (mere) pretext, a subterfuge; a plea in extenuation of an offense.” An excuse seems to be most useful when one wants to distance oneself from responsibility in an offensive action. It’s rewriting the story of the speaker’s involvement in the deed. For Austin, an excuse aims “to defend [one’s] conduct or to get [one] out of it” (176).

    In criminal law, if a jury or judge buys a complete excuse (such as, say, insanity), a defendant may escape punishment.

    An excuse can be distinguished from a justification, which, in the O.E.D., is “the action of justifying or showing something to be just, right, or proper; vindication of oneself.” A justification doesn’t serve to distance oneself from an offense; it attempts to rewrite the story of an offense so that it’s no longer offensive. In Austin’s words, a justification argues that an action “was a good thing, or the right or sensible thing, or a permissible thing to do” (176).

    In criminal law, a justification may mitigate punishment. For example, a conviction of murder could be slightly reduced to voluntary manslaughter if a jury or judge finds a justification convincing.

    In both excuses and justifications, there is a rewriting taking place — the deed in question is being questioned, and the players and responsibilities are being challenged. For alleged criminals, excuses and justifications are often the last strings they and their attorneys cling onto.

    These two can be contrasted with an apology, which, in the O.E.D., is “an explanation offered to a person affected by one’s action that no offense was intended, coupled with the expression of regret for any that may have been given; or, a frank acknowledgement of the offense with expression of regret for it, by way of reparation.” A pure apology acknowledges that a deed has been done in the way that the audience has perceived it. One must apologize to someone for an action for which the speaker is responsible (and admits so) and because of which the audience was offended.

    So while excuses and justifications do not necessarily require an audience specifically wronged by the excused/justified action, an apology cannot be delivered without one. And while excuses and justifications seek to reframe the deed, apologies acknowledge it as it is perceived.

    There is also the confession, “the disclosing of something the knowledge of which by others is considered humiliating or prejudicial to the person confessing.” A confession brings new information to the table, whereas excuses, justifications, and apologies deal with information known already to the audience. But like an apology, a confession acknowledges a deed and doesn’t (yet) attempt to rewrite anything.

    An apology or confession, in the context of criminal law, would come from guilty defendants. They might be overt, such as in a killer’s teary trial testimony, or they might be covert, such as in some interpretations of O.J. Simpson’s post-trial book If I Did It.

    #sorryimnotsorry doesn’t fit neatly into any of these categories. It starts off with an apology — “sorry” — but the whole sense isn’t really apologetic. It has attitude. It’s almost a confession: I confess that I feel no regret; I apologize if I hurt your feelings with my attitude. But it’s not even that–people who use #sorryimnotsorry aren’t really apologetic about anything. It has undertones of that annoyed teenage response: “sor-ry!” The implications held in the tone of voice and manner of presentation indicate that the speaker/writer isn’t sorry at all.

    In other words, it’s a “sorry-less sorry.” It drains the word “sorry” of its usual meaning and ascribes to it a new, totally opposite definition. (In that sense, it reminds me of that linguistics joke John posted a few weeks ago.)

    In the context of the law, some judges might even approve sanctions on lawyers if they don’t stay within these four categories of excuses, justifications, apologies, and confessions.

    “This court has recognized that requiring counsel to apologize for errant conduct can have an exquisite impact … The letters [of apology] shall not contain qualifying or conditional language [such as] … ‘Because the court has required that I do so, I am apologizing…’ or ‘Although I disagree with the court’s decision, I am apologizing…’ ” Crank v. Crank, 1998 WL 713273, N.D. Tex. 1998.

    A defendant who had the attitude of #sorryimnotsorry wouldn’t get very far. In fact, a defendant who wanted to get any drop of sympathy from a judge or jury would have to engage in one of the four acts described above. We don’t seem to like apologetic statements that stray outside of these categories. Consciously or not, we are often negatively predisposed towards those who attempt to construct an apologetic statement beyond these acts.

    But what about celebrities’ public apologetic statements? Tomorrow: Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, and the art of making a public apology.

    • johnwcowan 11:00 am on October 3, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      An apology is a complex speech act. As I analyze it, it contains a confession as one of its parts: one must admit to doing wrong in order to even begin apologizing. If this admission is conditional, it’s no admission at all. The next part is contrition: being sorry and saying so. Finally, there must be a promise of amendment. (Not surprisingly, these are also components of the Catholic sacrament of penance.) An apology that doesn’t contain all of these parts is really a non-apology, and has no redemptive value.

      There is also an interesting link between excuses and justifications. The mark of arbitrary authority is that it treats all justifications as excuses, and either punishes them more severely than the original offense (old school), or simply ignores all of them (new school).

      • mnhougaard 2:17 pm on October 3, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        “Being sorry,” even in an apology, doesn’t quite cut it unless it’s specifically, “I am sorry my actions have hurt you.” Why? Because there are other reasons, even in an apology, why a person would be sorry. For example take this apology: “I broke the window with my baseball. I’m sorry. I’ll never do it again.” Now, fill in one of the following unspoken phrases behind the “I’m sorry,” 1) “I got caught,” 2) “I’ll be punished,” 3) “I ruined my baseball.” Not much of an apology now, is it?

        That is why most public apologies by celebrities (I know, tomorrow’s topic) don’t wash with me. They’re not apologizing that their actions hurt someone else, but rather that they got caught and now are being punished.

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