Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

When an apology is not an apology

The linguistic field of discourse analysis offers up an extensive body of research on what makes an apology an apology, and the first and most frequently cited work in that area is John Searle's 1969 book Speech Acts. Way back in the year of this idealistic pragmatist's birth, Searle laid out the criteria a statement has to fulfill in order to qualify as an apology, and in layman's terms, we can say that it requires two parts: 1) regret (the "I'm sorry" or "I apologize" part), and 2) responsibility (some explicit statement that you were the one who did the thing that's being apologized for). The statement "I'm sorry that I borrowed your jacket without asking," for example, meets both of those criteria. There are several other conditions which will disqualify a statement as an apology if they're not also met (for example, if you don't actually regret the thing you're apologizing for, and are only saying you do in order to curry favour with the apology's recipient), but I won't even get into that here. The basic form is pretty darn basic: regret, and responsibility. They've both gotta be there, or else it's not an apology.

Often, people will use a rhetorical trick in which they make a statement that has a lot of the superficial trappings of an apology, but without one or both of those basic criteria of form. I call these statements "fauxpologies." One classic type of fauxpology is to say something like: "I'm sorry that you're upset about me borrowing your jacket without asking." This fulfills the regret criterion, but not the responsibility criterion, since the speaker is expressing regret not for an action, but for someone else's emotion. Another classic type of fauxpology is to say something like: "I'm sorry if I borrowed your jacket without asking." The responsibility criterion is similarly missing here, since the speaker is expressing regret only if a condition is true, but weaseling out of any admission that it is true. The effect of statements like these, if used skillfully, is to make recipients feel as if they should feel apologized to, despite the fact that no actual apology ever took place. They're not apologies, but rhetorical tricks for weaseling out of taking actual responsibility.

A truly excellent example of a fauxpology can be found in a recent post by Laurie Hawn (the Conservative candidate currently attempting to unseat Anne McLellan in Edmonton-Centre) called Jumping to Conclusions. When several bloggers and a bunch of people over on asked him to apologize for referring to Jack Layton as a "National Socialist", he responded by saying, and I quote: "I'm sorry if capital letters confused some people." Ingeniously, this statement actually manages to function as both of the aforementioned types of fauxpology at once, since it a) doesn't take a stance on whether (his) capital letters did confuse people, and b) expresses regret for something that someone else felt. It isn't an apology, but it is a rather clever little rhetorical trick, one that does seem to have succeeded in confusing some folks out there into thinking it was an apology.

As for this particular idealistic pragmatist, I never took a stance on the whole "apologize" issue--waiting, instead, to hear what Hawn had to say about his reasons for phrasing things that way. And if, as he now says, he actually meant "federal socialist leader" (the head of the socialist party nationally) rather than "National Socialist Leader" (Führer Jack), then I still think what Hawn wrote was pretty darn imprudent, but it wasn't necessary for him to apologize to anyone. But Hawn would certainly paint himself as a far more sympathetic character if instead of blaming everyone but himself and issuing grudging fauxpologies, he were to write something like: "Whoops. I didn't mean to call Jack Layton a Nazi, though looking at it now I can see why people might read it that way. I'm rewording the original post so that it will look less ambiguous." I'd have thought someone who wants to represent one of Canada's most hotly contested ridings might take a little more care with that sort of thing, but I suppose sometimes it's more important to evade responsibility than it is to come off as a nice guy.


Rivka said...

Oh, I love the word "fauxpology." I was quite familiar with the concept, of course, but didn't have a good term for it before.

Part of me wonders whether his initial wording was designed to preserve plausible deniability. I suppose there's no way of knowing.

(And hey! You de-linked my blog! Should I be offended?)

Rivka said...

Never mind, there I am. On the single-post page all I could see was the Progressive blogroll.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Yeah, while I still have some suspicions about his original wording, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But I do think it would have been a better idea to be a little more gracious about the people who misinterpreted him. Is this how he plans to behave in Ottawa if elected?

Also: I will never delink you! The Ottery is a permanent fixture in my links for as long as this blog exists.

Anonymous said...

Even the "socialist" label is dishonest; "social democrat" is more accurate; and yes, there is a difference...

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Yeah, though I do think a lot of NDP members are true socialists, the party's policies on the whole are more in line with social democracy.

AWGB said...

Here's an idea:

Clearly Layton is no fascist. Well, maybe when it comes to the environment. Nevertheless, if we strip away the symbols of fascism - brownshirts, goosesteps and swastikas, what do we have left?

Mussolini's famous definition is said to be "Fascism is the merger of state and corporate power". There is much debate as to what he meant by 'corporate' - those on the left think he meant 'corporate' as in 'corporation' whereas those on the right think he meant something along the lines of 'syndicalist'.

I think people in the NDP are so caught up with the "CPC-as-fascists" idea that they fail to examine the merger of state and corporate power in the Liberal party. We're talking Maurice Strong, Paul Desmarais and Power Corp, which has effectively made Prime Ministers out of rich lawyers from Quebec since the days of Trudeau.

One book that gets you to think outside the nazis-as-fascists meme is "Friendly Fascism" by Bertram Gross. It is one interesting read, for it says that Fascism lies in the area where the corporate and the governmental overlap. Corporations and government, in his view, live a symbiotic existence: bigger governments are needed to enforce the property rights of the corporation.

Also, one must ask when it is appropriate to demand an apology. I can hold my emotions hostage and demand an apology for any pereived ill I can dream up in an attempt to get my way: it's called manipulation, and people do it all the time.

Sure, Laurie Hawn should be careful about what he says in one of Canada's most hotly contested ridings, but that obsures the fact that nobody would care about him if the votes weren't that close.

This isn't about whether or not someone may have capitalized letters and called Layton a Nazi; it's about politics and I wish people would just be honest and say it.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I don't know where you're getting the idea that the NDP doesn't care about the failings of the Liberal party, and won't take them to task. That certainly doesn't correspond to anything I've seen through my own work with the NDP. Also, if people in the NDP are calling conservatives fascists, I'm not hearing it. I do hear those kinds of things being thrown around, but they're all coming from other bloggers and people I know outside of politics. How many people do you actually even *know* in the NDP? The picture you paint is nothing like the one I've seen up close.

As for the stuff at the end, there, I'm not even sure what you're trying to say. By "people," do you mean me? I can only assume so, since you're commenting in my blog, but
I'm not calling for Hawn to apologize (in fact, I even said that in my post). You also seem to be saying that "people" should be honest and say that they're only talking about Hawn because he's endangering Anne McLellan--does that mean you're accusing me of playing politics for the Liberals with my blog? Honestly?

AWGB said...


I grew up in the NDP. My grandfather ran on a CCF ticket in B.C. My Dad was very active in the NDP Youth, but has since faded away as the party changed. I'm not a card-carrying member, but what Dippers say in public is different from what they say in private, as is the case with all people. One can't pretend otherwise.

As for NDP folks calling CPCers fascists in public I would cite an instance concerning Pat Martin. It's old, I know, but when one NDP MP says they call Alliance folks fascists, that's a good indicator.

Or one could peruse to get a rough idea.

By 'people' I mean all the commenters who are making a big deal out of Hawn's _capitalization_.

On the other hand, I wonder why no Blogging Tories have even mentioned it.

"people". Def; Moonbats who have hijacked a level-headed post(yours) and have taken it to the point of almost misrepresenting it.

Initially, you had a fairly well-balanced question and even allowed that Hawn may not have understood what he meant. It considered both sides of the issue.

But then once others picked it up, it became a one-sided smear campaign. It's like people remember what happened to Malcom Azania, who did apologize, but only after Layton chose to distance himself from the whole episode.

It's not campaigning _for_ McLellan so much as it's campaigning _against_ Hawn. It's a rational motive for anyone who's on the left, afterall.

"Accuse" is a loaded word, but it's not oustide the bounds of reason to conclude whom any Progressive would choose in a "least worst" decision between Hawn and Annie.

Who really knows what Hawn meant? This is the nature of communication - the difference between intended and perceived meaning, and sometimes the best way for a political bloc (not blog!) to get what it wants is to play the victim and show how their sensibilities have been violated by someone.

Hawn may apologize, and I don't believe I have said that he shouldn't apologize either. I just take issue with witchunts, which this has turned into.

To clarify, you asked a straight up question, but it's turned into a case of "he called jack a Nazi - get 'im!", and this has been done by other people. It's easy to figure out whom.

I just get a kick out of examining people's incentives and motives, that's all.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Okay, I won't speak for anybody else's motives, but as far as I and the rest of the Edmonton-based NDP are concerned, there are a lot more political reasons for us to hope for Anne McLellan to fall in the next election than there are for us to hope for her to win again. You're just wrong about this one.

buckets said...

I agree, IP, with your take here. I think that Mr. Hawn really didn't mean to imply what he wrote. In the end what troubled me most was the 'I-put-my-life-at-risk-in-the-Cdn-armed-forces-to-protect-you' line.

What it takes to win. said...

If you go to Laurie's site I think you will see that the point has been clarified. I think you will be satisfied.