Sunday, November 30, 2014

Rate That Apology! Part 2: Elizabeth Lauten

We're back with one of The Debate Link's favorite games, "Rate that Apology!" People sometimes say terrible things on the internet; later on, they often issue apologies. These range from the meaninglessly formulaic ("I apologize if anyone was offended. I don't have a racist bone in my body.") to the genuinely heartfelt to those which actually manage to make the original offense worse. I'm interested in how people apologize for a lot of reasons. Optimistically, apologies are an important part of moving forward and not replicating past wrongs. Pessimistically, apologies are an important part of moving forward while finding new ways to reinstantiate past wrongs.

In any event, today's entry comes from Elizabeth Lauten, a staffer for Tennessee Congressman Stephen Fincher. Some of you may have seen an image set of the Obama daughters at the annual Thanksigiving turkey pardon. They were, shall we say, not invested in the proceedings. And most people saw the pictures and chuckled at how even the First Daughters are still, at root, teenagers who think their dad does lame things and resent being stuck at boring and hokey public functions.

Lauten, however, thought the Obama daughters needed to show "a little class" and should try dressing "like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar." This would have been a, dare I say, classless response even if they Obama girls had been doing anything remotely out of the ordinary for two teenage girls. It's especially bizarre here given that Lauten is the only person I've seen who saw those pictures and had that particular set of thoughts.

Of course, Lauten soon apologized, and that is the subject of our post (the original wrong is relevant in terms of judging the apology, but remember it's the latter that is the focus of the series):
I reacted to an article and quickly judged the two young ladies in a way that I would never have wanted to be judged myself as a teenager. After many hours of prayer, talking to my parents and re-reading my words online, I can see more clearly how hurtful my words were. Please know that these judgmental feelings truly have no place in my heart. Furthermore, I'd like to apologize to all of those who I have hurt and offended with my words, and pledge to learn and grow (and I assure you I have) from this experience.
It's perhaps worth pausing here to say what I look for in an apology. First, I want to see the person actually take responsibility for the wrong. This means none of that "if you were offended" non-sense, and certainly no complaining that one was manipulating into saying terrible things because grrrrObama!/I'm just so passionate about this issue/I'm the victim of trolling. Second, I'm suspicious of elements that seem to make it about you, the wrongdoer. This is not the time for you to talk about how wonderful you are; it certainly isn't the time to get on a soapbox about how you're really right about the core issue and just happened to express yourself poorly. Third, I don't want to hear about how the statement "doesn't at all reflect [you]." Clearly, it does -- at least somewhat. That's why you said it. If you don't like that element of self, then you should think about how you got to this place and what needs to change so you do too. Finally, one element that's typically impossible to judge at this stage but is of course worth noting is the follow-through. Anyone can say (or read off a PR-prepared card) a decent apology. It's another thing to see if it actually translates into meaningful behavioral change going forward.

Back to Lauten. She actually has a bunch of good things going for her. She does seem to accept that these words really were wrong and hurtful (not just in the ears of certain oversensitive beholders). And I like the "pledge to learn and grow" line too. That indicates that Lauten concedes that the fact that she wrote this indicates some bad thought process or malign attitudes on her part that need to be changed; that this can't be dismissed as some completely anomalous blip. Unfortunately, that passage stands in tension with "these judgmental feelings truly have no place in my heart," but at least we have that tension in the first place -- more often apologies take it as a given that obviously this wasn't the real them, so who needs introspection. Also on the potential "con" side is the "after many hours of prayer" bit, which to me seems to border precipitously on "making it about [Lauten]", but that might be a cultural bias on my part.

All in all, not bad. I'd have liked a clearer concession that this statement did say something about Lauten that she now realizes she needs to change, but that element is by far the rarest one you see in public apologies so there is a limit to how much I can mark down.

Grade: 6.5/10.

No comments: