on apologies

At CLA’s Great Debate last week, library conference and blogosphere fixture Stephen Abram addressed panelist Jane Schmidt with “Jane, you ignorant slut!”

You may recognize that as a famous Dan Aykroyd line from Saturday Night Live, from the 1977-78 era. And you may, additionally, be wincing at the thought that someone said that on stage. To a female panelist. At a conference. About libraries. If you are not wincing, please consider this: “slut” is a sexual slur that nearly always contains misogynistic and oppressive over- and undertones, and feels like a shaming attack when it is addressed at you. Even when it’s a “joke”.

Abram has apologized. I read his apology and just… shook my head. And I commented on Friendfeed that there are so many things wrong with that apology… “my tl;dr on the wrong: an apology is not a defense, nor should it be petulant. Go ahead and do those things if you must, but do them separately.”

On Twitter, I wrote,

when you repeat a 35 year old joke that offends people, don’t “apologize” by saying “younger” people don’t get your humor…
Instead, try to understand why what you think is funny is no longer considered appropriate, and reflect on how the world is changing.

Because, really? Blaming the audience and the profession for being offended en masse by a 35 year old joke? That’s poor form, dude. And it’s worth noting that in context, in the late 70’s, Jane Curtin often replied to Aykroyd on the air with “Dan, you pompous ass.” She also has talked openly in interviews about sexism, misogyny, and her male colleagues (Belushi in particular). So if we’re all going to follow the playbook that Abram would presumably prefer, we’re all, in fact, well within the terms of the engagement to call him an pompous ass. (We just took to Twitter to do it.)

Or, in short, it’s not that we didn’t get the joke: We just don’t think it’s funny. So blaming us for not thinking it’s funny, in an apology? Well. That’s not how one apologizes, I think.

But good apologies are not something I’m always successful at, myself. Apologizing well is hard work. It’s very, very hard work. Reading your words, and erasing all the justifications, the explanations, the shifting of blame… that’s hard. Reading your words and carefully taking out the pity and the petulance and the frustration… that’s hard. Reading your words and removing anything but the heart of the apology? That’s really, really hard.

We all have to try anyway, if we want to live in a civil society. On Friendfeed, several librarians — Laura Carscaddon, Martha Hardy, and Catherine Pellegrino among them — crowdsourced a script for what a smart apology looks like. Here are a few options. We could all learn from  them the next time we, inevitably, screw something up.

“I totally messed up. I should not have said that. I apologize. I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry. That was wrong because __. In the future I will __. Will you forgive me?”

and, from Laura,

“I’m sorry. That was wrong because __. In the future I will __. I hope I can eventually regain your trust” rather than “will you forgive me” because that last phrase, to me, places a burden back on the person being apologized to. (Situations absolutely vary and there are times where the “forgive me” language in that template is absolutely appropriate).

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