How to Write an Apology; Or Internet Rule #3

This post talks about people who have to apologize somehow for something. Many of these links are to offensive material or the apologies for offensive material.

If you communicate publicly, you will eventually have to write an apology.  It might be a momentary slip wherein you say something stupid and offensive.  It might be a full on blog post in which every part is stupid and offensive. It might even be for something you didn’t even write yourself, but instead for something posted on your website by a contributor. Regardless, something will happen and an apology will be needed.  You can reduce your chances by thinking through things you say, and specifically avoiding saying anything that makes you want to preface it with “I’m not racist, but…” or “I’m not sexist, but…” However, sometimes, it still happens.

There seem to be three major modes of apology on the Internet.

1) Heartfelt, direct acknowledgement that the writer did something offensive, with an apology for doing the offensive thing.

2) An acknowledgement that something offensive was done, with an apology for the offense.

3) Doubling down and saying that those who “understand” would not find anything offensive in it at all, with at best an apology that anyone was offended.

The first form is the best way to apologize. Directly acknowledge that you did something wrong, accept the repercussions, and say you will strive to do better. Even better, make clear how you will avoid making the same mistake and take some punishment for it.  You have to signal to your readers/listeners/etc. that you really do understand what the issue is, and both punishment and clear new rules can provide that signal.

A good example of this can be found in the following apology:

I will confess to not being a fan of either Ed Schultz or Laura Ingraham. I wasn’t even surprised that Mr. Schultz had said something so horribly offensive. However, there are several things Ed did correctly:

1) He unreservedly apologized, and apparently attempted to apologize directly to Ms. Ingraham as well.  (We’ll come back to this seemingly obvious point.)

2) He pointed out what he did wrong, without minimizing it. He acknowledged that what he said was vile and hurtful to many people, beyond just Ms. Ingraham.

3) He made an explicit promise to never use the offensive language again.  There was no vacillating on this point; he said the language was wrong and he should not have used it.

4) He accepted a punishment for his actions. We can disagree on whether a one-week suspension is sufficient.  MSNBC apparently did not think it was, as Ed was suspended “indefinitely” instead. However, that Ed not only accepted his punishment, but even proposed one, speaks to the sincerity of his apology.

I cannot speak for Laura Ingraham, or anyone else, but it comes off as credible. It is credible because it comes with a strong commitment to responsibility and punishment. Most of the commentary has been in praise of Mr. Schultz for this apology.  At the very least, most people have claimed a willingness to forgive him at least in part.

This can be somewhat contrasted with the recent Psychology Today brouhaha. For those who missed it, an evolutionary psychologist named Satoshi Kanazawa, who has a history of extremely offensive remarks, posted an article to Psychology Today attempting to explain why black women were “objectively” less physically attractive than white women.  There was an immediate uproar, with several people (including the authors of the study that Mr. Kanazawa used) denouncing the article and exposing the various methodological flaws and racist assumptions at work in the article.

Of course, the link I posted does not go to Psychology Today’s website, because Psychology Today removed the article after the outcry over it.  Of course, as we know from Internet Rule #2, anything posted is posted forever. Removing it, while possibly valid, just led to further anger and insinuations that Psychology Today was trying to pretend it never happened.  However, yesterday, the Editor in Chief Kaja Perina released a short statement:

“Last week, a blog post about race and appearance by Satoshi Kanazawa was published–and promptly removed–from this site. We deeply apologize for the pain and offense that this post caused. Psychology Today’s mission is to inform the public, not to provide a platform for inflammatory and offensive material. Psychology Today does not tolerate racism or prejudice of any sort. The post was not approved by Psychology Today, but we take full responsibility for its publication on our site. We have taken measures to ensure that such an incident does not occur again. Again, we are deeply sorry for the hurt that this post caused.”

I want to stress that as apologies go, this is not a terrible one.  There is an understanding that other people are offended with reason. Moreover, this is an apology for something written by someone else. (As far as I can tell, to date, Kanazawa has not apologized for this or anything else he has ever said.)

However, there are some problems with it that make it seem less than heartfelt. The most important of these is the various ways that the author distances Psychology Today from what happened.  The most obvious of this is in the first sentence:  “Last week, a blog post about race and appearance by Satoshi Kanazawa was published–and promptly removed–from this site.” The use of passive voice here absolves whoever was responsible from any blame.  It was published! And then it was removed! The reader is left with no idea who published it.  There is no acknowledgement of who was responsible, which means there is no public accountability. The lack of specifics in the new safeguards does not help the apology.  We know that Psychology Today has “taken measures” to prevent a repeat, but the site never explains 1) how it happened or 2) what these measures are.  Lastly, this apology appeared a full week after the offending article went up (and then back down).  In a world of instantaneous reaction, it seemed a case of too little, too late. Most of the commentary around the apology is still acrimonious, and it has prevented Psychology Today from ameliorating the damage done by this episode.

At the very least, though, Psychology Today did in fact apologize. Not everyone does. Scott Adams (well known of Dilbert fame) wrote a post on the subject of the “Men’s Rights Movement”, in which he said that men are oppressed by women, dismissed all ways in which women are held back by men by saying that women do not sacrifice enough for work or take enough risks in negotiation, and seriously compared women to “the mentally handicapped”. When he decided that he was quite done offending those groups, he then went on to use some fairly vile language to describe the men’s rights activists he had so far been agreeing with.

This, predictably, led to some very strong, well-deserved criticism leveled his way.  Of course, the very first thing he did was just delete the post entirely (again, failing Rule #2 and necessitating the use of an archived copy elsewhere). Then, when the criticism continued, instead of apologizing, he doubled down.  He accused those who called it offensive of having “poor reading comprehension.” He also claimed that it was just for the “regular readers” of his blog (failing Rule #1). He went on to say that everyone who was angry actually agreed with him.  (Of course, a quick perusal of his strips with the keyword apology does suggest that he has a problem with the very idea of apologizing.) Much later, he said on his own blog that the whole reason for posting it was to insult “whiners” and to offer a “something different” to his readers. There was still no apology, and just a reiteration that those who read it took the entire post “out of context”, even when they quoted the entire thing.

This all leads to Internet Rule #3: Never reply by just calling your critics stupid. If you could construct a flock of readers who never went anywhere else, you might be able to get away with such a defense within that flock. (In fact, this regularly happens in other media.) However, the incredibly intermeshed nature of the Internet makes this more difficult than in other media. Your readers and your critics can engage with each other without you being the interlocutor.  More importantly, your critics can engage directly with your sponsors, hosts, and advertisers.  By angering your critics in such a childish manner, you keep the issue alive longer and appear unable to formulate an intelligent argument. A simple apology by Mr. Adams, whether heart-felt or not, would have done much better than the mess he created with his need to dramatically defend himself in the most inane and insulting way possible.

It boggles my mind to this day that people have not learned the value of a good apology.  It is usually one of the first things we are taught as children. However, it is not just the act that is important; the content of an apology goes a long way towards undoing the professional damage done by the initial act. If you ever find yourself in the position of being criticized for saying something offensive or hurtful, please, consider carefully the consequences your response will bring.  There are people on the web who can help you carefully craft the apology that will make people think well of you, instead of the sputtering attack that makes people ask, “What was that person thinking?”


5 responses to “How to Write an Apology; Or Internet Rule #3

  1. >It boggles my mind to this day that people have not learned the value of a good apology. It is usually one of the first things we are taught as children.

    I have a feeling that, although parents may be telling kids to apologize, they’re probably showing them, through their actions and attitudes, that apologizing is an act of weakness.

    And great post in general! We recently had a huge fracas in the vegan community, when a blogger discovered that VegNews magazine was using stock photos of meat dishes to illustrate their recipes and articles! In some cases, they were photoshopping out bones and other “meat identifiers.”

    Instead of immediately apologizing for the egregious ethical lapse they went on the attack against the blogger AND excused themselves by claiming that “everyone did it.” A textbook failure, and it cost them a lot in terms of subscriptions and credibility. I wrote about it here.

  2. Very interesting post! I am going to look now at your post on Internet Rules #1 and #2. (Here via Feministe Self-Promotion Sunday.)

  3. Pingback: Pain and Writing; or, How a Heat Wave Took My Spoons | The Freelancing Researcher