Apologies

For the last few months, we’ve experienced a growing onslaught of stories about powerful men (in Hollywood, politics, and academia) being accused of sexual violence of various forms. I will state up front that this is not a conversation in which I am willing to debate the merits of the accusations – telling these stories publicly requires great courage on the part of victims, who have little to gain and much to lose, and I believe them.

The responses from the accused have been varied, and subject to much discussion that I want to weigh in on here, however briefly, as I poke my head out from under a mountain of grading. Two in particular stand out: those of Louis CK and Kevin Spacey. Both of these have been described as “apologies”, but simultaneously criticized as non-apologies. Within the last few days, Al Franken’s statement has been added to this list of questionable apologies, even though his includes just about all the formal elements one could possibly expect to see in such a statement. One question worth asking, as Jacob Sugarman does here, is whether a ‘public apology’ will ever be judged as ‘good’.

From a linguistic anthropological perspective, there are several elements at work here that are worthy of discussion.

  1. Apologies as speech acts, and the conditions that are needed to make them felicitous.
  2. The participants and participant roles that are involved in a public apology.
  3. The social and structural motivations leading to the performance of different types of apologies.

First off, while I have talked previously about the ways we can consider multiple types of

im_sorry
xkcd gets it with apologies as a pragmatic, not a formal thing

speech as actions, apologies live in that category of speech for which the concept of ‘speech act theory’ was prototypically developed by philosophers like Searle and Austin. Speech acts are forms of language where the speaking constitutes the doing – making promises, for example – and whose meaning should be judged not in terms of propositional truth, but in terms of ‘felicity’. A speech act is judged felicitous if it works to do what it says. For promises, this is contingent on the sincerity of the speaker, both in the moment and in future, and on the  perceived or actual ability of that speaker to successfully carry out the actions associated with the promise in question (I could promise that I will get something done on time, for example, but you may have many reasons to doubt that I will successfully do so, one of which might be that you know I’m writing this blog post right now instead of doing that thing). Anthropologists have critiqued the original formulations of this theory as failing to account for widely varying cultural perceptions about the relationship between a speaking ‘self’ and the types of statements encoded under speech acts, but it remains a useful concept to examine in its culturally specific manifestations.

Apologies are, in most English speaking environments, clearly speech acts, and the set of conditions needed to make them ‘work’ has been widely discussed. These properties, for the most part, emerge as functional criteria rather than formal ones. In other words, we cannot assess the merits of an apology based on the specific words or structures it does or does not include; rather, we attune to what happens in the social relationship within which the apology is situated. Janet Holmes* describes them as ways of “restoring the equilibrium” between the parties involved by addressing the “face-needs” of the victim of the action being apologized for.

The context here is a somewhat unusual one – these are public apologies for more or less private offenses. They differ from ‘political’ apologies (a topic about which my Language & Power class had a fantastic discussion emerging from Bonnie McElhinny’s** recent article on Canadian political apologies) in that they are issued by a public figure as a result of their actions as an individual, not in their role as a representative of a political organization. In part, what this means is that there is some discussion about who is receiving the apology, and who the participants are in this speech act. There are the specific, sometimes named, victims, which would make the apologies of the ‘normal’ interpersonal type. But at the same time, there is a public that is clearly invoked as receiving the apology. There are audiences, constituencies, co-workers, and fans who are situated as having been harmed and, if the explosion of responses and assessments of these apologies is any indication, who view themselves as appropriately able to accept or reject the proffered apologies. As that linked Alternet/Salon article indicates, this is a tough crowd to please, and it’s possible that there is no way to deliver an apology of this type that will be received without contestation and pushback. One element that became clear in our class discussions about political apologies is that in North American society, we retain a heavy emphasis on “actions speaking louder than words”, especially when it comes to apologies. The best anyone of these men can hope for is that we will wait and see what kind of change may come with respect to behaviour.

Before looking specifically at the three exemplars referenced here, I want to give an overview of my third point – there is a reason this is all happening now. One element I really like about McElhinny’s article is that she examines why, in the last 10-15 years, we’ve seen such an explosion of apologies offered by states for wrongs of the past. Specifically, she highlights how it serves the needs of neoliberal multicultural politics by legitimating certain claims to redress and implicitly delegitimizing others by not offering apologies for them. It’s clear to anyone observing right now that the apologies being offered by these men cannot be detached from current political concerns and debates – not only are they occurring as a result of the dam that was opened with the Weinstein accusations, they are also a response to outrage at the election of a president who admitted on tape to sexual assaulting women simply because his power let him do it. These circumstances obviously lead us to question the sincerity of the apologies in light of the public relations necessity they have become, but they also offer useful lenses into what else the accused men invoke in their statements.

With all that in mind, let’s look at what is happening in the language of these apologies. First, how do they fit in to different apology ‘types’?  While an explicit apology (a statement that directly says “I am sorry”) is most obvious, it is possible to have a successful apology without these words – there are no formal universals, after all, and someone saying “I will never do that again” may be just as or more meaningful that “I’m sorry” in defining a victim’s response. Expressions of regret are also key components, and the way in which an ‘explanation’ is invoked in apology statements becomes subject to heavy scrutiny.

Of the three apologies in question, a formal consideration of what they do and don’t include reveals that Franken’s is the most direct and explicit in its apology. He says “The first and most important thing [to say]….is I’m sorry”. He prefaces this with a list of people to whom he is offering the apology, then expands into an explanation and reflection on the social context in which he situates both his past actions and his present apology. Various listeners will have different responses to his sincerity here, and to how this apology relates to his previous denial that the events happened as they were remembered by his accuser. His, in particular, however, clearly exists in a framework in which all of these other apologies, responses, and statements have taken place, and in which he wants to take a stance directly about violence against women and gendered power.

Spacey’s statement, by contrast, does have the words “I owe him the sincerest apology” and “I am sorry”, but they are heavily mitigated with the surrounding language, which notably avoids direct admission that the accusations are true and sets the harm in the victim’s feelings rather than in the accused’s actions. This construction is famously lambasted as a part of insincere apologies, and again manifests the ideological belief that a focus on action is paramount, because actions are the primarily source of impact. What is most heinous about Spacey’s apology, of course, is the qualifying information he offers. Although he doesn’t directly say that his sexuality is the explanation for his behaviour, the position it takes within his short apology statement clearly suggests it is intended to play that role. He aims to place his response in a political context that celebrates coming out, that recognizes the struggles that gay men and queer people specifically continue to face, and that challenges heterosexist dominance. In putting this coming out in the explanation position, however, he ultimately suggests that sexual assault is caused by gayness, as well as re-centering his apparent apology on his own closeted suffering. The felicity conditions in this one are…pretty clearly not there.

Louis CK I have saved to the last because it has been, from what I can tell, the most contentious of the three, in that there is wide variation in whether or not people believe it meets the conditions of a true apology. The statement has been labeled an apology even though, as many have been quick to point out, CK never says “I apologize” or “I am sorry”. He does, however, do many of the other things associated with an apology, which Spacey clearly does not. He admits the truth of the stories, he discusses his regret, he assesses the various types of harm that he has done, and he outlines a specific plan of action that he will take (in this case, simply listening). The key feature that is making many dismiss CK’s statement as an infelicitous apology is his explanation section, in which he seems to reproduce exactly the problem that women are calling attention to in the current climate – the ways in which powerful men justify their actions precisely through reference to their social, economic, and political power. He did not understand these actions to be wrong, he says, because he was convinced of the weight of these women’s admiration. That, coupled with the degree to which CK talks about the pain of others primarily through reference to his own experience of struggle with that pain, is a sign that his entry into this sadly-still-repeating drama of public apologies will be judged on the ‘failed’ side. He sees the politics in which the apology takes place, but he misses the mark on how they work.

What’s the takeaway message from all of this? I’m not entirely sure I have one, to be honest. I am watching with skepticism the claims emerging that we have seen a watershed moment that shifts the view of sexual violence by powerful public figures, as I’m not confident we have yet reached a point that will really change things. The debates and assessments and ideologically rooted analyses of these various apologies are examples of why I feel pessimistic. There are a great number of people who, especially with respect to CK and Franken, feel that these statements mean that discussion of their actions should be over, and to me, this shows exactly what many are highlighting that all of this is about – the basic needs of women, as humans in the workplace and as victims in a public apology, are to be put aside for the comfort, economic advancement, and egos of powerful men. And if I can fight that with linguistics, well, I’ll do my best.

*Holmes, Janet 1989. Sex Differences and Apologies: One Aspect of Communicative Competence. Applied Lingusitics 10(2): 194-221

**McElhinny, Bonnie 2016. Reparations and Racism, Discourse and Diversity: Neoliberal Multiculturalism and the Canadian Age of Apologies. Language & Communication 51: 50-68

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Translating “Mansplaining”

This article on The Establishment has been thoroughly linked in the rounds of linguist Twitter (sidenote: my favourite Twitter [ed: wow, you really are a nerd]), and for good reason. It contains several fun and informative things – an account of how useful new terms work, crowdsourcing, and creative multilingual language play. On the one hand, it speaks for itself, but I want to add to a few of its points, and then be a killjoy just for a minute.

  1. The ‘splain morpheme as a wondrous piece of semantic change. While the article covers the origins, meaning, and spread of the term “mansplaining” quite well, it only briefly touches on how productive the “splain” morpheme has become. There are widespread examples of it with any form of dominant identity as the prefix –
    mansplainer1
    Grateful acknowledgment for this meme goes to Femina Invicta 

     

    whitesplaining, cis-splaining, profsplaining, etc etc etc. It can even be used on its own, as simple “splaining”. Although this Merriam Webster [ed: the go-to dictionary of the resistance…because who knew that would be a thing?] post argues that ‘splain’ predates mansplaining, in the sense of a reduction of the original term “explain” (as in the famous “Lucy, you got some splaining to do” formation), its current use does shift that meaning. “Splaining” is not just “explaining” – it’s a condescending, unnecessary explanation based on the presumption that the splainer knows things and the splainee doesn’t. It’s such a great word that captures such a clear meaning, it’s almost hard to believe it’s not even a decade old.

  2. Semantic traveling. ‘Splaining’, and mansplaining in specific, is also a concept with legs, and as it was likely born on the internet in an age of internet communication, it’s only natural that it should strike some of those who encounter it in English that it may be useful in their native languages as well. Two different types of such applications were documented naturally, as Swedes comfortably borrowed the English term, while Icelandic speakers created a translation with relevant nativized terms and metaphors. Both excellent strategies for different contexts. The later “crowdsourced” list also includes a few examples that have developed on their own (as in they weren’t made up just for the sake of making the suggestion), like the French “mecspliquer”. As a reasonably decent French speaker, I particularly like this one, because it captures the “guy + explain” basic structure, but has the added bonus of punning on the reflexive “m’expliquer” (explain to me).
  3. THAT CROWDSOURCED LIST, OMG. It makes me happy for so many reasons. First, it reveals the varied strategies and selections from homophones to make the words fun and flowing. The Chinese correspondent used discourse-level markers (the wind character) to reinforce the perception of a haughty attitude. Some of the correspondents hesitated because their language lacks some key features – like say, gender marking in Swahili – that are necessary to capturing the translation. It wasn’t impossible to convey the term, you’ll note (the trope of ‘untranslatable terms’ is one for another day), but the structures of the language really do create different ways of expressing ideas.
  4. Inclusion of unusual languages. This deserves its own marker – there are even some endangered and marginalized languages on that list of only 34, which is something distinctly rare. The Mohegan example is particularly striking – the language had its own term for a concept like this, and in response to the inquiry about ‘mansplaining’, a correspondent brought it forward to illustrate a similar concept with different cultural roots. Irish and Welsh are also nice inclusions. Language endangerment contexts often involve a lot of opportunity to think creatively about the languages, developing new forms that sound and feel natural on the languages’ own terms, so it’s nice to see that represented here as well.
  5. We are all verbal artists. One more highlight – it’s worth noting the extensive engagement with the way the words sound. It might be easy to think of new word creation as a somewhat utilitarian enterprise, but as these show, it’s also fun because of semantic play, and it’s poetic. The words take hold because they capture something not just in their meaning, but in the way they sound/feel as we say them. We don’t always pay much attention to this fun point of language, treating it as something that professional wordsmiths get, but normal people don’t. In fact normal people are pretty linguistically fun, which is why I like paying attention to them.
  6. It’s all fun and games, except…Finally, my killjoy moment – yes, it’s presumably intended to be cheeky, but I hate when “cultural universal” is demonstrated by a few dozen examples, the vast majority of which come from Indo-European cultures or a couple of large major non-European ones like Chinese or Arabic. This one admittedly goes farther than most, with the inclusion of Swahili, Mohegan, Tagalog, and Indonesian…but please stop with the use of “universal”. Please?

Thoughts on a Pink Princess Party: Gender & Children

princess-emojis

Sometimes being a parent influences my teaching and other times it is my parenting that is influenced by my being an anthropologist, a scientist, a teacher. I no longer know how to keep these roles separate, and indeed am not so uncomfortable when I fail to separate them.

We learn the appropriate ways of thinking and feelings behaving in our society through the process of enculturation. Similarly, socialization is the learning process for the skills we need to successfully interact in our social groups. Teaching gender as a social construct means that anthropologists recognize that socialization and enculturation teach us how we must behave as a gendered individual AND how to recognize other behaviours as gendered within a cultural context. This means that while we are assigned a gender at birth, we must learn what that means.

My husband and I assigned our kid a female gender at birth on the basis of their assigned sex at birth. We gave our kid a name that is identified as female within our culture. However, recognizing that the identities we are assigned at birth do not always “match” our personal identities as we grow and learn, we wanted to ensure our kid was exposed to diverse experiences, objects, and points of reference. Basically we wanted our kid to know that “female” does not necessarily mean sparkly, pink, princesses or other gender stereotypes. So books were purchased showing people in diverse rolls, with skin colours and hair textures and facial features and clothing etc. that are different from those represented in our household. Toys were selected without attention to which aisle in the store they came from. Cars, dinosaurs, dolls, balls, blocks, and costumes all had/have a place in our home. Awesomeness was defined based on personal interests. And it turns out that the last point is an important one.

See my daughter is a sparkly, pink, princess who is obsessed with all things Disney, and she wanted nothing more than a princess party for her fourth birthday. So that’s what she got – an over-the-top princess party. Now this post isn’t to brag about how great of a parent I am because that is far from the truth. It certainly does make clear the privilege I have on so many levels, because that I am privileged is the truth. What inspired this post is one of the things I saw in planning the party – I rented a princess.

It turns out that this is actually a thing (which will not surprise some of you with littles). You can rent an actor to come in full costume and character inspired by those, more often than not, belonging to the very large Disney universe to perform at your child’s party. There are several different companies in our city and each offer different takes on characters (to avoid copyright lawsuits) and packages. Unsurprisingly the more you spend, typically the more “stuff” that’s included in your package. I looked at the companies that focused on Princess Parties but some also had superhero or other characters available as part of their offerings.

What was extremely interesting to me was how the companies addressed gender.

Most companies clearly focused on stereotypes around not just princesses but females in western culture. Activities offered as parts of the packages included make overs, tea parties, and princess etiquette lessons. Some companies would note that other activities could be offered for boys in attendance but these mostly seemed to just include references to dress up items for knights and/or pirates. However some companies are trending towards a more gender inclusive approach.

While clearly a gendered term and while the actors who attend as princesses are female (they are meant to represent specific, beloved, and obsessed over characters), “princess” need not be defined nor represented exclusively as female. Several images used on promotional products for the company we went with show all children participating in various gender neutral activities such as face painting, crafting, singing, and dancing. Our princess painted the faces of any kid in attendance who wanted to have their face painted (I really appreciated the language of consent that was used “Would you like your face painted? May I touch your face?” btw) and offered two choices (shell or fish) based on her character’s world. The craft was for a crown or reindeer antlers because she “recently met a reindeer that another princess has and he was so cute [she] thought reindeer antlers would be perfect for our cold winter day”. She sang a song from “her” movie and read a story about “her” life. Only my daughter was referred to as “princess” because it was her birthday, all other kids were simply “friends”. So the “princess party” was themed to the character but not explicitly to a gender. Further it was inclusive in that the options were participation/non-participation based rather than female/male.

To wrap this up, my experiences with planning the perfect pink princess party as a parent and as an anthropologist reinforced the growing awareness that gender is a cultural construct. At the party I saw kids playing with a character that represented something important and meaningful to them – a princess who my kid described as friendly, fun, silly, kind, and who had a lovely voice. My kid saw qualities they liked, they aspire to embodied in that princess. I can’t find fault with my kid wanting to celebrate her birthday in a way that we might interpret as gendered but which she saw as simply “awesome”.

p.s. I  am also a little biased because I think one princess in particular is very awesome…

princess-kt

Note: I didn’t get compensated for this post. It is really hard to talk about princesses without mentioning Disney because let’s be real, they’ve locked the whole princess thing down!

Intent, Social Responsibility, and Alternative Facts

The world has felt intensely awful this past week, and a sense of existential dread and foreboding has settled into my knees. And within that, the only real, concrete thing that I feel able to do is teach, and speak, and sometime to laugh at the absurdity of it all, and so here I am.

Kellyanne Conway handed a gift to the comedy and internet meme worlds when she suggested that the Trump administration’s statements about attendance rates at the inauguration should be seen not as lies or misrepresentations, but as “alternative facts”. The Orwellian subtext has so rapidly become text that it is destabilizing to even think about, and of course that is, at least to some extent, the point. But this conversation about Trump and his absolute disregard for truth is not a new one, and watching how we have gotten to this point feels illustrative to me.

This article from the good old days of 2015 gets at some major parts of this matter. The key point:

Donald Trump lied. And yet traditional news organizations can’t or won’t call him that in the name of “objectivity”—appearing to favor one party over another—even if one candidate is spreading a rumor that unfairly maligns an entire race.

Post-enlightenment Western cultures are enthralled with the ideal of “objectivity-as-truth”, and such objectivity requires the observer to stand outside the context of the observation itself in order to get an accurate view. Taking a position internal to the story – one that comments directly on the relationship between Trump’s statements and the actual world – would violate this tenet. “There are three sides to every story”, the adage goes, “your side, my side, and the truth”. This framing places “the truth” in an essentially unreachable place, neither yours nor mine, and validates the idea that wherever it is, it is outside of our rooted positions. The central crack in this nice ideal view of a world in which we have to agree to disagree and collectively navigate our way through inaccessible complexities of reality is that it fails to adequately account for cases in which one of the sides is actually equivalent to the truth.

Fast-forwarding towards ‘alternative facts’, there is discussion now about whether it is appropriate to call Donald Trump (or Conway, or Spicer, or any of nose-156596_960_720the others speaking for him) “a liar”. This NPR piece exemplifies the main principle behind even raising this question, which focuses on the concept of speaker intent as the central relevant point, before concluding that, because we cannot read Trump’s mind, we cannot conclusively declare him “a liar”.

This is, of course, to use the polite term (thanks M*A*S*H*) “grade A, 100% bull cookies”. But it’s both persuasive and pervasive because it ties in to some important common sense Western conceptions about how truth, knowledge, and intent work. While explaining the linguistic/anthropological theories behind these conceptions would take up far too much of your time (Ed.: which you should totally be spending calling your MP and demanding real action instead of reading this, unless of course you’ve done that already, in which case carry on), what I do want to point out is that there are many alternative understandings of the relationship between truth, responsibility, and intent.

The theme of “intent” and how it connects to a lie always makes me think of the way some of my Amazonian friends would use the Portuguese word for a lie (“mentira”) for situations in which the person was, to my mind, much more likely simply mistaken. If a person said, for example, that an event had happened three years ago rather than five, with no motivation to have me believe the former, I felt odd when it was categorized as a lie, but when I explained that fact, I was told it was the same thing. If the speaker didn’t really know the answer, they should’t give information as though they did. I have not had a chance to explore this idea in depth, but I have a hunch it may be connected to the fact that the Indigenous languages these Amazonians speak make use of what are called evidentials – basically, ways of grammatically encoding how you know the information communicated. If the information is hearsay, or if you are uncertain about it, you have to say so directly in your statements. The bare presentation of information without a sense of source and authority, then, appears the same, and functions socially as, a lie, in its insufficient verification of truth.

The question of “intent” re-emerges repeatedly in relation to accusations of racism or other forms of prejudice. A example of this emerged in a recent discussion I had on Twitter about how anti-hate speech laws work, in practice, in Canada (thanks to James Leask for so concisely getting at major issues). By locating the racism so firmly within the intention of speakers/actors, we create a huge loophole in which we can never call any statements racist, because that is a thing that is located in the unknowable, inaccessible ether of their consciousness. It’s because of this that anti-oppression advocates often emphasize the need to interpret speech in terms of its impacts – in other words, to see the existence of racism and assess racist speech as something whose meaning is interactionally produced. not a nebulous beliefs located in people’s minds.

The same thing applies, albeit in different ways, to truth and lies. As we teeter into a post-truth world, where lies proliferate without liars to speak them, I want to tune in to how that is happening, beyond the obvious Newspeak terminology produced by people like Conway. Instead of upholding these ideological notions about where truth is, and how difficult it is to access, we need to dig in to the roots of how a focus on individual intent and a continued belief in the value of detached observation create the conditions for “alternative facts” to become materially significant. Because the material significance, as this weekend has shown us, is huge.