I shouldn’t have to say this, but apparently I do

[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.

But apologizing is hard and painful and makes me feel bad about myself

You are a person with status and privilege. If the worst you have to deal with is occasionally feeling shitty for metaphorically punching people in the face? Count yourself lucky.
When you fuck up and hurt someone, the only thing you can control is how you respond. You can choose to be defensive and double down on your hurtful action or statement, or you can apologize sincerely, listen to what they say about why what you said/did was hurtful, and do your best not to do it again. It’s human nature to not want to have to do any of that, and privilege conditions you to believe that we shouldn’t have to!
But that’s when we come back to the notion of social norms and apologies. If my two-and-half-year old who can’t tell the difference between zebras and tigers can understand the idea that she needs to apologize when she hurts someone, what is so fucking hard to understand?

13 thoughts on “I shouldn’t have to say this, but apparently I do

  1. When it comes to people who respond defensively to being called out for hurtful behavior, I have a very difficult time believing that they didn’t have any intent to hurt, or at least some awareness that they would do so. That response just does not make sense to me. If someone tells me that what I just said was hurtful toward them, I am horrified by that (assuming I was not intending to hurt them) and can’t apologize fast enough. If you truly do not want to hurt others, why the fuck would you defend it when it happens? Those things just seem totally incompatible.

    • It certainly can be lack of awareness. Probably that lack of awareness is a willful lack of awareness, but as long as you genuinely don’t understand (or refuse to understand) that something is problematical, or why it is problematical, the mere fact that someone tells you they’re hurt isn’t necessarily a good enough reason to apologize.

      Imagine I wrote that I find the word “incompatible” really hurtful and personally offensive. Would you really be horrified, apologize for using it, and promise to try and avoid using that offensive term or any similar (maybe me and people like me are hurt by any suggestions of luck of harmony and universal compatibility, not just the word “incompatibility” itself, at this point you don’t understand or know why I’m hurt so you’re not sure) in the future?
      Probably not. You’re most likely to assume you didn’t do anything wrong, there isn’t any problem with clearly stating that incompatible things are incompatible, there isn’t any problem with assuming that things can be incompatible, and I’m being ridiculous.

      Again, I agree that in most cases people are very probably aware they’re being hurtful, and when not it’s usually because they intentionally didn’t pay attention to any of the things that would have made them aware. But once you’re not aware of the problem it’s possible to refuse to apologize without a good explanation on why what they did was wrong, but even if they then bother finding out (would you bother to honestly ask me why people would find “incompatible” hurtful if I made the claim?) they may get back a (generally very justifiable) response that it’s not the responsibility of the person they hurt to explain obvious stuff to them.

      • Wouldn’t most people respond to a claim that sounds really bizarre with a “why” rather than a “no?” That’s where it stops making sense for me. I can think back to times in my life where someone told me I said something offensive, and while I didn’t understand why it would be, I also didn’t just assume that I was right and they were wrong and oversensitive. And sure, I agree that it’s usually justifiable to say it’s not their responsibility to explain it, but even that doesn’t change anything about whether their claim is accurate or not.

        Is this just an ego or self-esteem thing? Are we just seeing people who think of any mistakes on their part as glaring character flaws? I just have a really hard time understanding why anyone would rather ignore the problem and make the same error over and over rather than trying to figure out how to fix it.

      • Uh, what? I’m sorry but your example is bizarrely nonsensical and borderline sealionish. Seriously? No one in their right mind is going to believe that there should be a serious claim to the word “incompatible” somehow being offensive.

        What I am talking about in this post is people who say sexist (or racist, or homophobic, or ableist, etc etc) things and when called on it double down on their comments because they didn’t MEAN to be -ist. And we’re not talking about weird edge cases here. We’re talking about “well no one cares about social justice in games because SJWs are mean” or “everyone knows that sex sells” or “women aren’t REAL gamers” – shit that people should just KNOW is offensive.

        So your bizarre non-analogy? I’m sorry but it’s just wrong.

        • Not actually what I thought I was saying, so sorry for not being clear. I’ll try to be more specific here, if unfortunately longer and more verbose.

          I was not responding to your point about people doubling down because they didn’t “mean” it. I am in complete agreement on that point, intent isn’t magic and doesn’t really matter, and when the hurt or offense is real than caring about the offender’s intent is going about things in the completely wrong way.

          I was specifically responding to zugthemegasaurus claim that if people don’t apologize after being told they were hurtful then it cannot possibly be because they were completely unaware they were being hurtful, since if they were completely unaware of being offensive then when they were told about it they would have accepted it.

          And for this purpose the example does work, I think? Because it’s exactly intended to be something that the reader isn’t going to believe for a second is honestly offensive.

          “I didn’t mean to offend so I won’t apologize” is crap. “I honestly think that the offense you’re telling me about is completely silly and bogus and not real and so I won’t apologize” is bad, and does carry fault in getting to this point, but is not strictly… impossible. (“was completely unaware” and “not immediately checking and apologizing when being told it hurts” are not incompatible)

          Enough ignorance can explain a refusal to accept, or even check, someone’s claim of hurt/offense all by itself.
          Because when you’re sure enough the claim is false, then there’s no point checking it. Just like you (I feel safe to assume) didn’t even bother to run a quick google search to see if maybe there is something offensive about general claims of incompatibility. It’s absurd.

          Of course I am starting with the assumption that people *can* be completely oblivious to the relevant issues, rather than just mildly aware.
          I’m pretty sure people can be, because I do get to sometimes meet people who are.
          If you think it’s not possible to be completely unaware, then my point is wrong, but then again in that case the claim I was trying to respond to would also be moot (if people are never unaware in general then there’s no sense in judging whether they were unaware based on what they do with it later) so neither my response or the comment I was responding to matter. And that’s a different conversation, and not what I was talking about.

        • Much as I hate to disagree with you, wundergeek, I think the analogy was an important counterpoint for three reasons:

          1) apologizing assumes you actually believe you were wrong

          2) sometimes (for whatever reason) you don’t care to follow up on learning WHY the other person is offended

          3) even if you do want to ask, it’s not necessarily that person’s responsibility to educate you.

          This applies in the “incompatible” example – if it were me, I wouldn’t sit down and say “gee, I hate that you’re hurt – explain the sociopolitical background surrounding the use of this word as a pejorative” unless the person I offended was already someone I cared about. For some random internet commenter? I’d assume they were a statistical anomaly (i.e. irrational) and move on. I’m sure there are plenty of high-status people of privilege who feel the same way when others get offended about words like “tranny” – nobody complaining means enough to them to make them bother learning what the fuss is about, so they assume obviously the people getting their knickers in a twist are all statistical outliers. It’s not just a question of “are you going to do the right thing or are you a jerk?” because to someone with no grounding in social justice theory, a LOT of the things we avoid saying sound just as ridiculous as the “incompatible” example is.

          I think the third point is important, too: the person who has been offended has some agency in this. If the high-status person of privilege does actually ask “hey, what’s the matter with what I said/did?”, it’s NOT automatically the job of the person offended to educate them (and, often, argue with them about it). The person who has been offended has the choice to do that, and it’s awesome if they do, but they also have the right to walk away and say “actually, other people have explained that better than I can” and that doesn’t make their offense any less real or their point any less valid.

      • Once, I said something was “retarded” and a co-worked called me on it.

        Before:

        I was kinda, sorta aware that probably, maybe for someone somewhere “retarded” wasn’t nice to hear. But whatever.

        After:

        I know that for real people, that word really hurts. And it’s my responsibility to not cause accidental hurt by carelessly throwing around words that hurt.

        Simple.

        That responsibility is in no way changed or reduced if the reason why the word hurts makes sense to me or not.

        I can be a jerk and shirk that responsibility.
        Or I can not be a jerk and accept it.
        Or I can try and make the world a better place by understanding why the word is harmful and helping others not make the mistake I did.

        If we come to live in a world where “incompatible” has become hurtful, the exact same rules apply. And those of us who grew up in a time when “incompatible” was just a boring word will have to learn not to hurt people.

  2. “But I didn’t mean to hurt anyone, they’re just being over-sensitive” is semantically equivalent to all of the following: “But it was only a little bruise; it’s just their fault for having haemophilia”; “It’s only a little bit of sugar, they’re just being unreasonably diabetic”; It’s only a piece of bread, they’re just being deliberately coeliac at me!”; “The bee didn’t mean to sting you, you’re just being unjustifiably allergic”

    Some people are over-sensitive. This is true. However, usually people who are over-sensitive to things (as per the biological examples cited above) will try their hardest to avoid situations where they’re going to have their sensitivities triggered, because being uncomfortable for whatever reason, be it biological or psychological, isn’t pleasant. It isn’t something most people will seek out deliberately. Humans are the product of millions of years of evolution which has built on patterns of discouraging harmful activity through discomfort and pain; we’re optimised to seek pleasant stimuli over unpleasant.

    It’s even more disingenuous when you consider that the label of “over-sensitive” is most often applied to women, or to non-white people, each of which categories come with clear visual indicators (in the majority of cases) of membership – and thus does mean the speaker should have had a pretty clear indicator of who they were likely to be offending and why.

  3. If, when apologizing, you feel you want the person to know that you didn’t intend the harm or offence, the right part of the apology to include that face saving fact into is the “I wont do it again” part.

    “… I did mean to punch you. I did not realize that my years of punch-the-short-hair conditioning would kick in as it did, now I know, and now I know I have to be careful in crowded places not to panic-punch. …” *

    Key is that “I didn’t mean it” is not excuse for why it happened, but rather a obstacle you have recognized as a barrier to be overcome.

    And what does this tell the aggrieved? That maybe you’ll do better next time, and that maybe you can be trusted not to intentionally pursue harmful courses of action, and the probably, you have things to learn about how to behave, and that maybe you can even learn them.

    And all those maybes raises the sincerity question.

    If you want to appear sincere, recognize that you’ve wronged and should apologize, rather waiting for someone to demand an apology. (Hopefully you are sincere and fear an image problem, rather than looking to create a veneer of sincerity).

    If you do something, and someone demands an apology, of course I’m skeptical of your sincerity.
    If you do something, and then apologize sans a demand, your recognition of your error shows awareness and maybe even empathy

    And of course, the proof is in the pudding of learning from your mistakes and actively avoiding or preventing harmful scenarios (i.e. following through on restitution and repenting).

    * as part of an apology that get the other elements right

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