Anne Notations

Friday, May 04, 2007

Pop the weasels

People who pretend to apologize for intemperate words by saying "I'm sorry you took it that way" are weasels. Today on his local radio talk show, Dan Yorke responded to a 42-year-old cerebral palsy sufferer and teacher of learning-disabled children who complained about Yorke's nicknames for a dumb state legislator: "special-ed" and "learning-disabled." The complainant's letter about himself and his students was heartfelt and sincere, although it unfortunately devolved into a threat of legal action. That would have ticked me off, too, but still I grimaced when I listened to Yorke read a stilted apology, essentially saying: "I'm sorry you interpreted my words that way."

C'mon! That's not an apology. It's a put-down: I'm sorry you're an oversensitive jerk. Even the loathsome Don "nappy-headed hos" Imus managed to retreat from his initial self-justification and concede, albeit under duress, that his remarks were "stupid" and "idiotic."

Let me break it down for you. Either say "I was wrong, and I'm sorry," or don't pretend to apologize at all.

When I edited an alumni magazine, I fielded an astonishing quantity and range of complaints from Faithful Readers. Man, they could be clueless! I responded patronizingly at least once, trilling to an offended alumnus from my editorial aerie, "I'm sorry you chose to be upset by what I wrote." My ego got in the way of my humanity.

Fake apologists are not the only weasels among us. There are also victim-weasels, like the actor Alex Baldwin who left a profanity-laced phone message for his 11-year-old daughtter that concluded, "I'm going to straighten your ass out when I see you! You are a rude, thoughtless little pig, OK?"

The ensuing outrage propelled Baldwin into damage-control mode. To the press, he said: "Obviously, calling your child a pig or anything else is improper and inappropriate, and I apologize to my daughter for that." So far, so good. He should have stopped there. But no; Baldwin had to append a weasely qualification: "There's nothing wrong with being frustrated or angry about the situation. ... I took it out on the wrong person because I'm unable, under the current dynamic, to address the other person." Translation: I messed up (sorry, Ireland!), but it wasn't my fault. Because my ex-wife is a freak, I cannot be rational in dealing with our daughter.

William Beslow, a divorce attorney interviewed on CNN by Anderson Cooper, astutely observed, "Mr. Baldwin's so-called apology, in effect, is a document designed to suggest that he is now the victim [italics mine] and that the person who has been guilty of the most egregious misconduct is Ms. Basinger." Peter Birkinhead, writing in Salon about such forms of verbal chickenshit, bemoaned "the diminishing, even implicit mocking, of genuine goodness."

In recent years I've tried to get real when apologies are warranted. I actually have uttered the words "I'm sorry. I made a mistake" on more than one occasion. That doesn't make me a saint; simply a slightly more thoughtful asshole than I was 20 years ago. Self-improvement: it's a wonderful thing.

When will certain celebrities and pundits join me in aspiring - even if it busts our boomer egos - to a modicum of goodness, of humility, of genuine accountability? When will we stop being weasels and start being, in the words of e.e. cummings, "human (merely) beings"?


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