[I’m starting off with an anecdote about my kid, but this is by no means a post about my kid, so bear with me.]
My daughter is two-and-a-half, which is an interesting age in that we’re starting to get out of the “what is the word for this” mode of language teaching and into the “social norms behind use of language” mode of language teaching. Granted, we still have hilarious arguments sometimes about what something actually is (“no, sweetheart, that’s a carrot, not a pineapple”). But more and more we’re starting to get into teaching things like manners.
You know, things like, “say please when you want something instead of pointing and screaming” or “if you kick someone, you have to say you’re sorry”.
Of course, that’s not all that goes into a good apology. My daughter is a bit young to start teaching her the difference between a good apology and a bad apology; after all, she still struggles with the difference between zebras and tigers so that’s perhaps something a little beyond her. It’s enough for us for now that we are teaching her that when she transgresses a social norm (like, say, kicking someone) she has to say that she’s sorry.
Pretty basic shit, right? So why am I even talking about this? Well, as basic and just-plain-obvious as this should be, lately a nontrivial number of men with status in the games community keep fucking up and not fucking apologizing. And as one of the people who continually gets hurt by these sorts of shenanigans, I’m just. So. Tired. Of it. So even though this is something that you all should have mastered a long time ago, we’re going to have a little talk about apologies.
It’s important to note here that I’m primarily going to use the term “high-status person of privilege”, because it is important to acknowledge that people who are not white and/or not men can and do fuck up. But make no mistake that I am primarily aiming this at white dudes in positions of power and status within the game community. And if you don’t like that, white men? Then start taking other men to task when they fuck up and maybe I won’t have to make with the condescending lectures anymore, okay? Then we all win.
First: What makes a good apology
There’s a lot of great writing on this subject, so I’ll keep this pretty brief. What counts as a good apology is actually fairly specific:
1. Expressing Regret – Saying, “I am sorry.”
2. Accepting Responsibility – Admitting, “I was wrong.”
3. Making Restitution – Committing, “I will make it right.”
4. Genuinely Repenting – Promising, “I will not do that again.”
5. Requesting Forgiveness – Asking, “Will you forgive me?”
— Anthropologist Gary Chapman, The Five Languages of Apology
“I’m sorry that you were offended” is never a good apology. Neither is saying “sorry” only to then go on at length how you didn’t actually mean to hurt someone. If you want to apologize well and have it accepted gracefully, you need to follow the above structure.
Wait – why are apologies so important anyway?
Why are apologies important? Because you fucking hurt someone, you asshat. And when you hurt someone, you need to apologize.
But I didn’t mean to hurt anyone, they’re just being oversensitive
Contrary to what you’d like to believe, the intent behind an action that hurts someone doesn’t actually matter, and here’s why:
Let’s say that you live in a society that rigidly codifies hair lengths. In this society, people with long hair are allowed to punch short-haired people in the face as hard as they want, as often as they want. And not only are long-haired people not punished for punching short-haired people in the face, but often long-haired people will reward you for it.
Now you? You’re a person with long hair. Maybe you used to punch short-haired people, and maybe you didn’t. But either way you’ve come to realize that punching people of any hair length in the face is wrong and have decided not to do it anymore. However, you can’t overcome a lifetime of conditioning, and sometimes you react out of fear or anger or weakness, and the old instincts kick in before you can stop them. For that matter, a lifetime of being allowed to punch short-haired people in the face has made you a bit oblivious about short-haired people’s personal space, and sometimes you just plain smack a short-haired person in the face without meaning to.
Whatever the reason, the end result is always going to be the same. They, a short-haired person, have been hit in the face by a long-haired person. And if they don’t know you personally, they have no reason not to assume that you’re just another long-haired person who likes to go out and punch short-haired people in the face – because long-haired people are always fucking punching them in the face.
Their hurt and pain is real, because they’ve been punched in the goddamn face. Does the fact that you punched out of habit, or societal condition, or even accidentally… does that actually matter? No, because their face still hurts, and no amount of explanations about the context of that particular punch to the face will make their face hurt less.
Is the short-haired person allowed to be angry in this situation? You bet your ass they are. Not only have they been punched in the face, but people like you go out of their way to punch them in the face on a daily basis. You demanding that they not be angry because you didn’t mean to punch them in the face is the height of entitlement, because you are trying to put your defensive desire to not feel shame on the same level as the short-haired person’s bruised face.
The context surrounding the punch doesn’t fucking matter in that moment. What matters is the short-haired person’s face hurts and you need to apologize for hitting them in the fucking face.
But they don’t want to believe that I’m being sincere!
Unfortunately, that’s always going to be a risk that you run as a person of privilege and status. To continue the previous example, if you were a short-haired person would you be able to 100% trust someone who punched you in the face if they said they didn’t mean it? When people who looked liked like them punched you in the face on a daily basis? Gleefully and unrepentantly?
Marginalized people get hurt by allies all the damn time. Speaking to my own personal experience, as much as I hate and fear trolls, sometimes dealing with someone who calls themselves an ally and turns out to be a secret misogynist is far, far worse. Because these fake-allies get behind your guard, earn your trust and respect and even friendship. Which just makes it all that harder when someone you thought was an ally turns around and punches you in the face with their deep-seated misogyny.
Over time, that has a tendency to wear away your trust in the fundamental goodness of humanity. I love gaming and find going to conventions energizing. But anymore, I find actually meeting new gamers to be terrifying, because gamers have proven over and over and over that they are not a safe group of people to trust. Individual gamers? Yeah they can be okay. But gamers as a whole are a group that I cannot trust, because they have hurt me too many times for me to be able to trust them.
Look I said I was sorry privately. Why do I have to make my apology a public thing?
Did you fuck up in public? Then your fuckup hurt more than just the person you were aiming it at. In order to even begin to make amends, you need to own your fuckup just as publicly.
If I say I won’t do it again, why is it bad if I don’t apologize?
Aside from the fact that you’re hurting people, you mean? Well, it’s simple.
When you hurt people and refuse to apologize, that compounds the hurt. Sometimes the people that you hurt will decide to brush off the abuse and remain part of the community. However, sometimes the people that you hurt will leave, because they will (correctly!) perceive that the lack of an apology reflects their lack of worth in the eyes of the community. Further, other members of the group that you hurt will refuse to even join the community that you are a part of, reasoning that there’s no reason they should have to put up with a group where they have no reasonable expectation of emotional or physical safety.
Worst of all, however. YOU MAKE THE ABUSERS THINK THAT THEY HAVE YOUR SUPPORT.
Each time you, as a person of status and privilege, use that power to lash out at someone and hurt them, and you refuse to own that screwup and apologize? The abusers in our community, of which there are MANY, see that and assume that YOU ARE ON THEIR SIDE. Because you are yet another person like them who is using your power to quash and silence marginalized voices.
And it doesn’t matter that it’s not your intention. It doesn’t matter that you don’t agree with the abusers. It doesn’t matter that you are working either publicly or behind the scenes to end abuse in the community. It doesn’t matter what you have done or are doing to get marginalized people into positions of status in the community. What matters is that you are being complicit in reinforcing the cultural standard that it is okay for people of privilege and status to use their power to abuse people without power.