Getting To Sorry: Why Apologies Matter When Someone Says Something Bigoted

Last night, while you were either watching the Oscars or sleeping, The Onion tweeted the following about a nine year-old girl up for Best Actress:

“Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhané Wallis is kind of a cunt, right? #Oscars2013″

Later that night, the tweet was deleted without comment. Today Steve Hannah, CEO of  The Onion, apologized.

I was one of many of using all the social media channels to tell The Onion that comment was unacceptable. Cunt is a hate speech word, and to use it against a child — it is too much. It is almost unimaginable to believe so many hours would have crawled by without an apology for a little white girl. The comment revealed as much about racism as it did sexism. What happened last night was public, technological sexual harassment: The message of calling Quvenzhané a cunt was that she should know her role, and not get too big for her britches after being the youngest-ever nominee for Best Actress. It was also a glaring example of promoting and condoning rape culture by forcibly and denigratingly sexualizing others and declaring them dirty — child rape culture, at that.

Outcry was the correct response. Why? Because apologies matter when someone says or does something bigoted. Apologies validate the humanity and human rights of the targeted individual(s), and those who by the same accident of birth belong to the same systematically under-privileged groups. Further, they set a standard for what will not happen again. Finally, they offer a chance for rupture – a change in how things are done by the offending individual or institution, and a change in how greater society approaches the problem.

So briefly, let’s cover how to get to an apology, what to ask for in return and how to move forward constructively.

First, if you see something that sucks, say something sucks. Right away. You don’t need to write a thesis paper about why a given practice is offensive. Simply acknowledge the offensiveness of the comment and immediately let the offender know. And don’t just do it in a vacuum – let others know you’re letting the offender know. Social media is genius for this. But if you take the time to, for example, write an email to an offending company or individual, be sure to then post it on your blog and/or Facebook, and encourage others to write their own comments. Or give everyone a synopsis of the voicemail you left, and encourage them to do the same. (Make it easy for others to take action by providing the contact information in your open letter or notes.)

While you’re going at this first step, don’t feed the trolls. You know who I’m talking about. The people who tell you you’re an overreacting whiner, etc. “Language police” or “political correctness” is a frequent charge leveled by a number of sloppy right-wingers who don’t want to do the work to grapple with a counter-argument of why a practice judged dehumanizing or offensive should be considered alright, or not such a big deal, or part of tradition. Don’t feed these intellectually lazy trolls. They aren’t your target anyway. Your target is the actual offender.

Second, be reasonable. Asking for an apology in response to bigotry is a good step and one you should be proud of. Do so with your shoulders held high.  But I also urge you to think one step ahead — ask for something that will guarantee this won’t happen again. For example, in the case of The Onion’s horrific slur about Quvenzhané, you’ll notice I asked for a two-part solution in an accessible way:

(Ultimately this is close to what The Onion did, although they not only apologized, they said they would implement new social media procedures and discipline the writer.) When I say be reasonable, however, what I mean is to be approachable. Don’t make it impossible for your target to agree with you by acting like a total jerk yourself. And also use your faculties of reason: Offer a step beyond sorry that could sidestep the problem in the future. Once you have made sure to cover this ground, you should feel free to explain all the ways a bigoted comment is offensive. Just remember that persuasion/education by itself does not spell out an action. Make it possible, practical and productive for your target to say “sorry, plus …” in such a way that you should feel confident they are taking steps to eliminate a bigoted practice from their future repertoire.

Don’t stop until you get your apology and a commitment to taking a productive step forward to help address whatever caused the problem. Persistence is your friend. For that matter, rope in your friends for additional backup.

But when you do get your apology and a commitment to taking a productive step forward to help address whatever caused the problem, be respectful. Don’t start hating on your target in a whole new way, saying they are “insincere” or “it doesn’t matter.” By honoring a meaningful apology you are sending a message as an activist to others that you are in this to win this for the cause — not to be a jerk and target an individual because you’re so needy/clingy/stuck on a being a pain. It makes it more likely you will help contribute to other successful reversals in the wake of bigoted comments and actions. And that’s what we want, right? A better world.

Feminism, as a practice, is not about gotcha and declaring some people good and other people bad. It is about eliminating bigotry from our lives — something all of us will have to work at — and moving forward in new ways that honor the full potential and human rights of everyone. So getting to sorry is a big deal, because it is that first step toward honoring people and making change.

How have you gotten to sorry after someone’s bigotry was showing? What changes were you able to bring about? Share your stories and tips in the comments below.

Comments

  1. Well argued, but I think two things are missing. One, we need to de-power these words. Just using the word “cunt” shouldn’t be grounds for outrage. If it is, then as a culture, we’ll never get past it. Second, ANY word can be funny. Satire is critical to achieving the aforementioned de-powering of the word. I wonder if your (albeit just) putrage causes harm, by not allowing room for satire to work its magic. By making the use of the word in any sort of real derogatory way a joke, we may be able to eliminate its power. By reacting strongly to its use, regardless of circumstance, I think we simply perpuate it’s power among those who use it to denegrate others. I get your point, but maybe you should be more clear about what EXACTLY they should be apologizing for. Not using the word I hope. But rather why they use it. And how that “why” can be changed.

  2. Using the term Cunt for a 9 year old is never funny. Period, End of Story.

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