Tuesday, August 01, 2006

On Quasi-Apologies

So Mel Gibson has apologized for his anti-Semitic rant when he was arrested for driving under the influence. One part of his statement struck me as quite interesting.

I am a public person, and when I say something, either articulated and thought out, or blurted out in a moment of insanity, my words carry weight in the public arena. As a result, I must assume personal responsibility for my words and apologise directly to those who have been hurt and offended by those words.
Note the nifty rhetorical move -- it is an explicit acceptance of responsibility, but an acceptance of responsibility for what? There is a contrast drawn between "articulated and thought out" statements, on the one hand, and that which is "blurted out in a moment of insanity," on the other, and the clear inference is that the statements for which Gibson is apologizing -- coming as they did in a drunken stupor -- could not be held to be "articulated and thought out." He is accepting responsibility for his actions while insane.

What a fascinating choice of words. Notice, he chose not to say "intoxicated," but rather selected the term "insane." When we are drunk, it lowers our inhibitions allowing us to do or say things we otherwise would choose not to, but which we really wanted to do or say. The thoughts and desires are our own, we simply have impaired our self-censorship capabilities. Insanity, by contrast, is the lack of rationality, it is a state in which we are not in control of ourselves and cannot be held morally responsible for what we do because we were not in control of our decision making faculties. In this "articulated and thought out" public apology, Gibson's use of the word "insane" puts his apology in a strange place. He is saying that he is sorry he said it, but it really wasn't him who said it. In other words, he is saying, "I am sorry that those words came out of my mouth, even though it really wasn't me that was saying them at the time." And of course, you can be assured that he would never say such a horrible thing because it is repugnant to his faith -- you know, the faith that led him to make a movie that had Jews portrayed in such a positive light that he had to go back and add scenes that made some Jews seem human after there was an outcry from community leaders.

Gibson's apology is Aristotelian. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that if one is rationally impaired and responsible for putting oneself in that state then you are responsible for any harm you cause while impaired. This is also the line that Gibson takes -- the questionable part is whether the impairment allows him to apologize for the act without taking ownership of the content of the act.

It isn't exactly a non-denial denial, but it is a close cousin, what we could call a "quasi-apology." We see these sorts of moves all the time where we express displeasure at the result, but do not fully own the intention that caused the action which caused the effect. "We regret any inconvenience." "We regret the loss of innocent life." "I'm sorry what I said made you feel that way." There is a clever little equivocation on the notion of "being sorry" -- it shifts between "being sorry" as expressing sorrow and "being sorry" as expressing contrition. I may be sorry that you broke your leg when I was in another city at the time, but that is different from being sorry that I broke your leg with this lead pipe. By couching the whole thing in terms of insanity (and the rest of his "I'm not a bigot" defense), Gibson is placing this in the sorrow instead of contrition category.

We have even enshrined the concept of a quasi-apology in law. Corporations who cause great harm, but don't want the public relations hassle can agree to pay for rectification without admitting any wrong doing. Apology without guilt -- what could be better.