Monday, May 26, 2008

Step away from the words

Several months ago I was in heavy traffic when my brakes snapped. Rust had done its damage and when I pressed on the pedal for a not-so-hard brake I heard a snap and the car lurched forward freed of my rein. I smacked into the car in front of me. We both pulled over. The kids in the other car stepped out looking a bit dazed. I stepped out and asked if everyone in the car was OK. We walked to the bumper and saw that no damage was done. We weren't going that fast. I was still in a bit of shock and I looked up at the two kids standing there. The fact that I didn't know which of them was the driver or owner kept me silent for just long enough for them to shrug and say "Oh well." I too shrugged and got back into my car.

It was about a mile home. When I stepped into the living room I realized that I had never apologized. I felt like a cad. A jerk. A fool. An ass. I felt like flipping myself off. I still felt bad about it the next day (still do) so I told the story to everyone in the office and all my classes and I assured them that I knew I had been an idiot.

That was important: that I judge myself for the lapse -- accuse myself of behaviour that I do not approve of. I lost control of a vehicle and I had agreed to manage safely. I had then failed to apologize to a car full of people that I will probably never see again (they got on the highway and left town) so I apologized to another part of my community hoping to assure them that my second oversight was unintentional and uncharacteristic. And by assuring them that it was uncharacteristic I was promising to be more careful in the future.

My take on Hillary Clinton's statement of regret really doesn't add anything new or exciting to the analysis of public non-apologies.† As The Ridger says in her comment -- Clinton's is pretty standard.

In that post I asserted something that deserves explanation.

Tho I've given my understanding of her reason for using the example…I agree that an apology was necessary.
Why was it necessary? If you have seen Keith Olbermann's invective you've heard his reasons. I don't agree with all of them. He believes the mere use of the word assassination is unacceptable. He verges on chastising her for the mere reference or even utterance of the word. I don't. Otherwise I'd have to implicate him too.*

I do agree that Clinton doesn't need to have made a purposeful implication in order for an apology to be appropriate. The lines of responsibility in language get fuzzy while in other interactions they are managed with more resolution. If the brakes go out in my car I apologize if I rear-end you. I don't have to accelerate into your car with the intention of causing damage. Not just personal safety, but good manners and social grace keep me aware of the effect my vehicle can have and I accept responsibility for whatever happens even when it's something that I never intended to do. Even if it's something I was trying not to do. Even if I was being reasonably careful. Some situations call for extra care. And even if I'm being careful I might not realize just how much more careful I should be.

It's winter. I'm planning to make a turn. I slow down. I downshift. I brake lightly. I know the road is icy so I start this process early. But the road is more slippery than I thought and I slide through the intersection. I was trying not to do that. But I smash the side of your car. And I apologize because if I could go back I would make different choices. It doesn't matter that I didn't put the ice there. Or that I've never gotten a ticket before. I'm not apologizing for being a bad driver or mounting a malicious attack. I'm apologizing for something I would like to have done differently.

Language makes the line fuzzy partly because getting 'hit' isn't the same as being offended. I can't just realize 'Hey--I've been offended!' It's more like 'Hey--someone said something to which I take offense.' You can't be offended without consenting to it. This view doesn't blame the victim because it doesn't nix the responsibility of the offender. No one need apologize for being offended.

All candidates are in the middle of a volatile campaign. There are all sorts of connotations and landmines out there that people are being careful to avoid. Way back when Joe Biden described Obama as both black and "articulate" he was hammered by people who hate hearing those qualities mentioned together. This was even tho Biden used "articulate" in a non-restrictive clause (tho not everyone agrees he did).

It doesn't matter that articulate is a positive quality and it doesn't even matter that contrary to many opinions it's not a token compliment. People of all ethnicities and all cultures are praised for being articulate. For speaking well. For speaking forcefully and clearly. Why was Biden's comment a problem? Why should he have apologized? Because the public didn't like it. Because the statistics on how the adjective articulate is used are not as loaded as the opinions regarding its use.

Part of an apology is an assurance. And this assurance does well to acknowledge that learning has occurred. This is why I say Clinton's apology was necessary. She has used the timeline reminder before and now she has been told that it's not a pleasant rhetorical device. That's subjective yes. But a politician would do well to say that she cares about the things the voters care about. (Unless there's a principled reason to disagree with the voters. The best politicians know when to do that too.)

What about a reasonable misunderstanding? This goes beyond the scope of any linguistics that I know how to do. There's a miraculous amount of weighing and balancing and negotiating and maneuvering of a complexity that I won't attempt to describe or understand. One one side of the field is a reasonable reaction and on the other is an unreasonable reaction. And the centerline is dotted and moving. It's hard to tell where and if it's been crossed.

How do we guard the edges of our ambiguous language?

If I say 'Get the funk out of here' and you are horrified thinking I said 'Get the fuck out of here' I should probably apologize for using the word that I knew could easily be confused. If I say 'Get the firetruck out of here' and you didn't hear the '-iretr-' I don't need to apologize. I might apologize for not speaking more clearly -- but that'd be charitable of me. If I say 'Hello' and you think I said 'fuck you' then you should probably apologize for such a ridiculous accusation.

Then why am I so sure that Clinton should apologize? How do I know that those who were offended by her comment are being reasonable? I don't. Maybe I don't have to know.

An apology isn't necessary for Clinton to be a good person. For that it's neither necessary nor sufficient. She's a politician and an apology may be necessary for her to seem like a good person. (And no: I don't use seeming to preclude being.) But I have no say over- and little understanding of- the impression politicians make on the public. I'm often baffled by the things that ruin a political career and I'm more often angered by the things that don't.

The truth is that she will help voters to move on whether she apologizes or not because politicians are good at fooling a lot of people. A slick misdirection and some sleight of mouth and it becomes apparent that a hefty mass of the population is stuck in Piaget's sensorimotor stage. A clever politician knows to push aside forgiveness and ask for amnesia instead. Clinton doesn't have to convince her critics that they shouldn't have been offended. She just needs to convince them that they never were.


†The blending that leaves Clinton sentence nonstandard gets brief mention in Mark Liberman's post. He sees it as a blend of an I regret that- and an I'm sorry if- sentence. It's true that 'I'm sorry if-' is much more common (and natural to my ear) than 'I regret if-'. So he sees if as a complementizer. Read his post for more discussion and several links to helpful analyses of apologies.

*In his bit Olbermann asks disbelievingly: You actually use the word assassination? She didn't. She used the word assassinated. Of course his argument doesn't rely on this distinction.


  1. I would've liked to hear an apology from Clinton right up until I heard Olbermann's ridiculously sanctimonious demands. I've watched his show for a while, and I've put up with his "O'Reilly's a blow-hard" bits because, well, O'Reilly is a blow-hard. But is the way to combat O'Reilly's style to blow just as hard in the opposite direction? His self-righteousness lost me in this recent attack on Clinton -- I'll probably split the difference from now on and go back to watching C-Span.

  2. There's a useful three-way distinction in Aristotle's Ethics of the types of wrong-doing between absolute innocence and pre-meditated viciousness.

    Tychema ("an accident") - The offender had no intention to harm and no reasonable way of knowing that he would.

    Hamartema ("a mistake") -
    The offender had no intention to harm, but he should have recognized the possibility.

    Adikema ("an injustice") - The offender intended to harm but was carried away by the moment.

    According to this schema, your liability in the car accident depended on whether you had been negligent about keeping yourself updated on your car's roadworthiness. If you had just had the breaks checked recently, for example, the collision was clearly in the "accident" category and you didn't owe anyone an apology--in fact, you were probably owed an apology for the "mistake" of the mechanics. Of course, apologizing for the situation when it is inappropriate to apologize for your guilt can be a nice substitute, something like, "Man, I'm really sorry this happened. I just had the breaks checked last week." If this is the truth, I would certainly prefer to hear this kind of apology to a self-condemnation.

    I'd class Hilary's fault as a "mistake" and her apology should have been for her poor judgment. Actually, when I first heard the words I didn't see why they were offensive. I just saw it as an example of how primaries have often lasted into the summer. Only later did I realize the other implications. For me, a private citizen who hadn't even thought about the possibility of someone assassinating Obama, such a statement would have been an "accident", but a seasoned politician certainly should have known better.

  3. Casey: I agree about the ridiculousness of Olbermann's outrage. I like watching him as a cautionary tale when I start feeling that righteous indignation that comes from our shared views. He's an amusing example of how useless a reasonable point of view can quickly become when it's married to a disrespect for the slightest opposition of premise or method.

    Dave: that's a nice categorization. My point with the driving example is that when I'm in control of my car there is never an excuse for rear-ending someone. Short of the car behind me pushing me tenaciously into the car in front of me. Even if my breaks were cut maliciously I should have enough control of my car to gear down or steer clear of the car in front of me. And with my words I should be equally in control. They might be interpreted by lunatics in a ridiculous way -- but I should work to choose those words that are evidently respectful. Some paths to an accident are easy to understand even if just in hindsight. I believe apologies are appropriate in such cases.

    But then I'm ever the spineless one.


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