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).

30 thoughts on “on apologies

  1. mazohystic

    There’s nothing more infuriating than apologies that basically only apologizes for the fact that people were offended and not for the actual action that was wrong (AKA not having a sense of humor). It happens a lot unfortunately, especially when it comes to comedy on the Internet. It’s even more disappointing to know this happened in a professional setting. Hopefully a real apology will be issued soon and that the person truly knows what they did wrong.

  2. Dan C

    This is exactly on target. One has to be accountable for one’s actions. Take responsibility in an apology and do not blame the offended parties, the media, history, civilization, medication, etc. And what a perfect example for any future discussions of Codes of Conduct!

  3. Catherine

    That’s an excellent point about the burden of the “will you forgive me” part of the template. I hadn’t thought about it in quite those terms, though the source where I learned it (which I can’t remember — it’s not my own work, for sure) made a point of noting that the wronged party has the choice to forgive or not, and the party in the wrong must accept that choice unreservedly.

  4. Chris Bourg

    Spot on Jenica. Personally, if/when I am in a position to invite or vote on speakers, moderators, association reps/officers; I will always pick those who show judgement and sensitivity over those who don’t — so Mr. Abram is unlikely to get my vote any time soon.

  5. Cathy

    I remember watching it live. It wasn’t funny then, it still isn’t funny, especially springing it on a panelist from a position of power. I read his post this morning and am still thinking that this isn’t all about him, which is how he seems to be viewing it.

  6. jessamyn

    Agree with you entirely Jenica. I spend a lot of time apologizing in my various jobs (people are unhappy, regardless of whether it’s our fault necessarily, we can be sorry that our institution made them feel bad and work to resolve the issue) and I feel like it goes a long way.

    I feel bad for Stephen here also. Not because I don’t think he made a severe error of judgement and didn’t really apologize well, but because I think it’s always been his job to be the “edgy but not too edgy” guy, and that’s a tough line to walk and should have come with more of a back-up plan if you go over the line. And I guess he didn’t have one. That’s awkward. I feel like this isn’t his first rodeo with this, I’m surprised by the non-response. I think for a lot of people, his schtick has been tired for a while (and I like the guy personally, so this is complicated to write) and it was maybe just past time that there was some “Hey dial it back a little bit please” response from someone. And it may have felt extra strong because of that.

    I know his feelings are hurt. That’s a different sort of hurt than a professional colleague joke-calling you a slut in front of your colleagues at a professional event which is just against the rules, to me. And maybe taking a hiatus from being him online is actually a good response to this, in the longer run. His personal apology was accepted (if I’ve read the accompanying stuff correctly), people have done a good job at explaining the misstep. He may or may not have learned anything from that. I’m hoping we can move forward having learned something from this in a general sense, both about missteps and about apologies.

    1. Jenica Post author

      It’s always nuanced. Part of what I’m hearing online is a sense of “about fucking time” that Abram was told to dial it back, and that he’s been a thorn in the sides of many for too long — but this time it was just too much to brush off and ignore because, yeah, a lot of people like the guy. I’ve encountered him being kind and genial and interesting, and I’ve also encountered him being a complete jerk. Sometimes liking the guy isn’t enough, and sometimes it shouldn’t have gone on this long before someone said something.

      But it’s *all* nuanced; as Michael Casey noted on Twitter, if Abram does learn something from all of this, and does in fact apologize in a way that isn’t so … off … then The Internet People have an obligation to hear and acknowledge (if not accept) said apology, just as we’ve heard and acknowledged (and not accepted) this one.

  7. robeauch

    I agree that his apology should have been much more succinct. He does appear to understand that the fault was his (“I need to evolve”), and he explicitly states that the context “does not absolve my mistake.” But there’s no reason for an apology to run longer than it takes to acknowledge your error and express regret for committing it. His runs quite a bit longer than that.

    FWIW, he notes that he apologized personally, and immediately, to Jane. Presumably that apology was more succinct.

  8. threeoutside

    To add a little more depth of history here, I don’t see anyone mentioning that Akroyd’s and Curtin’s schtick on SNL was *itself* a parody of a regular feature on 60 Minutes in those days, called Point/Counterpoint. To quote the wikipedia article about 60 Minutes: ‘

    ‘For most of the 1970s, the program included Point/Counterpoint, in which a liberal and a conservative commentator debated a particular issue. This segment originally featured James J. Kilpatrick representing the conservative side and Nicholas von Hoffman for the liberal, with Shana Alexander taking over for von Hoffman after he departed in 1974.’

    For further description including a reference to the SNL parody, here’s the link:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/60_minutes#.22Point.2FCounterpoint.22_segment
    The feature gets its own section of the wiki article.

    I watched those in the 60s and 70s. The two adversaries sometimes got very heated, and came close to outright personal insults sometimes. And the public ate it up – that’s why the SNL skits were funny. As for whether there is any humor to be gleaned from any of this now, I’ll leave that up to others to decide.

  9. hezaa

    If someone had called me an ignorant slut in front of an audience at a formal convention, I would have laughed until I peed myself. It seems immediately obvious to me, even without being familiar with the exact source of the joke, that the point was intentionally over-the-top hyperbole that was completely inappropriate to the scale and timbre of the discussion being had, and as such it was a wild success. Is it inappropriate to call someone a slut? Absolutely, 100%. Especially if there’s clearly no cause for it and the speaker is clearly going from 0 to 11 with no provocation at all. That’s why it’s funny.

    I should say, that’s why I think it’s funny. My sense of humor would likely be considered wildly inappropriate by a lot of people – this stuff is all highly, highly subjective. I just wanted to throw in an alternative viewpoint and say that I totally get what he was trying to do, even as I get why people would take it badly.

    1. Sarah Vaisler

      I completely agree. People didn’t like the joke, he apologized, let’s move on!

      Frankly I’m disgusted with the cyber-bullying that has gone on via Twitter and Facebook. Considering this is an issue dealing with inappropriate conduct, I have witnessed little in these arenas that I would call appropriate.

      1. Jenica Post author

        I disagree: he didn’t really apologize, not to the audience he was addressing. (What occurred between him and Jane is between them.) He blamed the audience for not getting his humor, complained about how hard it’s been on him to be accused of saying the things he actually said, declared that the CLA is impinging on his freedom of speech, and frankly seems to be sulking. His apology was insincere at best, and is a thinly veiled rant at worst.

        And while I do agree that some of the online discussion is way out of line, I think it’s important for the marginalized to have voices. When the speaker is someone with a profile as large as Abram’s, and a voice so respected by so many, it’s doubly important for the people affected by his actions to have a place and a way to say “this is not okay” and have their voices be heard. Online venues are providing that opportunity and power, and that *matters*.

        1. Random Internet Commenter

          Weird. I don’t recall you making a public apology to the people you offended at Charleston last year. Even the half-hearted apology you did eventually make was only in the comments section here. In fact, your initial reaction was to roundly and angrily criticize the people who had the gall to point out that you were out of line.

          You “think it’s important for the marginalized to have voices”? That’s cool. Just not domestic abuse survivors who criticize you, I guess.

          When “the speaker is someone with a profile as large as Abram’s, and a voice so respected by so many, it’s doubly important for the people affected by his actions to have a place and a way to say ‘this is not okay’ and have their voices be heard.” That’s cool. I guess since you only have 1/4 the amount of Twitter followers, you only have to apologize 1/4 as much.

          “Online venues are providing that opportunity and power, and that *matters*”? That’s cool. I guess when members of a marginalized group express themselves in print AND online that they get a little too powerful. In which case, it’s time to put them back in their place. Right?

          Thanks, as ever, for the moral guidance, Jenica!

          1. Jenica Rogers

            In what way is this not a public apology?

            “This talk deserves a trigger warning regarding domestic abuse. I draw a direct comparison between an emotionally abusive set of circumstances in a domestic relationship and the ways that publishers have approached libraries in our commercial relationships. It was not my intent to hurt anyone with this comparison, but it was careless of me not to realize that hurt would be a result. I knew it would startle people, and hoped it would shock some into seeing things differently. I didn’t think about the pain it would cause others, and for that I am sorry.”

            http://www.attemptingelegance.com/?p=2271

    1. Matt O

      The SNL sketch was funny BECAUSE it was offensive. Because misogyny. It was satire, which offends by highlighting our hypocrisy. There is no such thing as inoffensive satire (e.g., Swift, Colbert).

      There’s no rule saying you have to like satire, but SNL was on your side on this issue.

      The problem here seems to be that Stephen forgot that while satire is always offensive, being offensive is not always satire. Sometimes, as noted above, it is simply the failure mode of clever.

      1. Rochelle Mazar

        There is a point, however, where your satire stops being satire and just becomes an expression of the thing being satirized (like constantly saying “no homo” ironically, which, you know, is still you constantly saying “no homo”).

  10. nplceo

    I agree with much of this, especially that the comment Stephen made was out of line and ill-advised. However, I am disappointed when some in the library profession react by asking for him to be removed from the organization. That is an offence to our values. Yes, we value the right of all of us to feel safe (in particular, at our conference) but we also value all voices and take great pains to shut them down only in extreme circumstances. In this case we are struggling to get the balance right. Stephen should have been given the opportunity to apologize publicly, rather than having any opportunity to speak at the conference taken away.

    1. jessamyn

      That’s exactly where I am with this. There should be a way for an organization to publicly say “Hey man, not cool” in a way that is serious business without it seeming like a scorched earth approach to dealing with the larger issue of workplace speech issues and harassment.

      But part of this is, of course, having a set of existing expectations (and sanctions) to begin with so that people can figure out how close to the line they want to get. I’m not as deep into this as other people, so its quite possible I’m missing some aspect to how this played out that was less public. Did CLA comment on this publicly as an organization?

      1. Andromeda

        I agree that existing expectations would have helped. This is not the sort of issue where you want to be making up your policy on the spot with lots of people mad at you – not least because that’s going to be terribly stressful to CLA staff, and likely unfair to Abram!

        CLA has commented that they relieved Abram of his duties at the conference (though, contra downthread, I haven’t seen evidence that they kicked him out of either the conference or the association), and that they have drafted and are reviewing a code of conduct: https://twitter.com/CLA_web/status/472178951805087746 , https://twitter.com/CLA_web/status/472193279811788800 , https://twitter.com/CLA_web/status/472226330520469504 , https://twitter.com/CLA_web/status/472236200007180289

    2. Rochelle Mazar

      Possibly it’s complicated by the fact that this is a man who is constantly speaking at conferences, and often multiple times over the course of a single conference. His voice is amplified over that of many, many less well-known librarians with bright ideas and thoughts to share, which makes this kind of comment echo through the whole of Canadian librarianship in a particular kind of way.

      I’m not really sure why we fete certain people to such a degree that we actually shut doors on other voices. This isn’t Stephen’s fault; we appear to have collectively decided that his voice should be that much louder.

      No one’s perfect, everyone’s bound to make mistakes. I know I’ve said some ridiculous things in front of an audience from adrenalin alone. If we can learn anything from this, perhaps we can stop constantly putting the onus on such a small number of voices and expect them to always get everything right. There are many bright lights in Canadian librarianship, and I’d love to hear keynotes from all of them.

        1. Dan C

          Again, agreeing with most everyone. While I’ve had quieter conversations with him that have been very collegial, the shtick and persona he’s cultivated and his ubiquitous appearance as THE featured speaker have made me scratch my head. I’ve seen some previous presentations that were inappropriate, in the ay of “I’m gonna SHOCK you and cuss and call you to task!” which is fine at first, but after a while, you need to back up that shock-jock with some solidity. What he did was wrong, apology was meh, but I don’t believe he needs death threats. Just a reassessment of how you play in the playpen.

  11. Tara Robertson

    I saw a tweet from CLA that said “We have relieved Mr Abram from his duties at #CLAVic14 He has apologized directly to the individuals. We continue to look into this matter.”

    They acknowledged that they have a dated code of ethics (conduct?) and apparently a motion went to the CLA Executive to pass a Code of Conduct.

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