July 04, 2006

Air quotes and non-apologies

In his discussion of Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen's use of the word fag to describe a despised reporter, Arnold Zwicky missed an interesting aspect of Guillen's subsequent defense. One soundbite from Guillen's remarks to reporters on June 21, the day after his F-bomb, was frequently replayed on ESPN:

I should have used another word. They can do whatever they want, but I'm not going to back up. I will apologize to the people I offended because I should have used another word.

When those words appeared in print, some papers made small revisions to Guillen's comments. For instance, the Chicago Tribune replaced the word "they" with "[MLB]" (i.e., Major League Baseball), since the context was a reporter's question about Guillen's possible suspension. The Sun-Times, meanwhile, chose to render "back up" as "back [down]," editing Guillen's slightly unidiomatic usage to a more expected phrasal verb to fit his defiant refusal to apologize directly to the reporter in question, Jay Mariotti. But one paralinguistic feature that the newspapers chose not to transcribe was Guillen's prominent use of air quotes as he said, "I will apologize to the people I offended."

Greg Couch, the Sun-Times columnist who originally reported on Guillen's use of the word fag, took note of the air quotes in an interview on the blog After Elton:

AE: Do you think Guillen understands what he did wrong now?
GC: No. His apology was so weak: "I didn't mean to hurt anyone. I'm sorry if anyone took offense." I'm sure he didn't, but that's not the issue.

AE: And it's basically a non-apology apology. "I'm sorry if you're so sensitive that you're offended by this, but I didn't really do anything wrong."
GC: Yeah. I told him, "Ozzie, you've been in this country for 25 years. You know you can't use that word." He even used air quotes when saying those I "offended". Then he laughed when asked about sensitivity training. He doesn't take it seriously.

This is a twist on the typical sports non-apology exemplified by Pete Rose's statement, "I'm sorry it happened and I'm sorry for all the people, fans and family it hurt." As Geoff Pullum observed about the Rose case, expressing regret that an incident occurred and that it had an adverse effect on people does not constitute a fully formed apology. Guillen's use of air quotes visually bracketing the word "offended" distances himself even further from a true apology, casting doubt on the idea that he has anything to apologize for.

Guillen has already used his lack of proficiency in English as an excuse for being misunderstood (and also as an excuse for not bothering with the sensitivity training that MLB Commissioner Bud Selig has ordered him to attend). Perhaps if questioned about his use of air quotes he would say that the gesture has different connotations in his native Venezuela — as he claims is the case with the word fag. Guillen does seem to enjoy using air quotes and might have an idiosyncratic view of their appropriateness. (The photo above is not actually from his June 21 comments but from a pre-game interview before Game 4 of last year's World Series. It's unclear what exactly he's air-quoting in that instance.)

If Guillen does eventually attend sensitivity training, maybe they could devote a moment or two to air quotes. If, for instance, Stephen Colbert uses air quotes around "doctor" and "professor" when referring to Michael Adams as he did in the truthiness wars, his viewers are supposed to infer that Colbert (or rather his on-air blowhard persona) doesn't think that Adams really deserves those titles. And whoever sees Guillen air-quote the word "offended" would similarly infer that he doesn't really think anyone was offended. Perhaps he thinks that the whole thing is a media-constructed non-story, or that gay rights advocates were not serious in their outrage at his remarks.

In any case, Guillen is hardly alone in making light of the whole idea of apologizing for homophobic slurs. The website Outsports has detailed how such non-apology apologies are all too common when sports figures are called to task for making anti-gay comments. These ambivalent statements of regret seem to serve two purposes: (a) inoculating the speaker from further criticism because a perfunctory "apology" has been made, and (b) serving as a wink/nudge implying that the speaker hasn't really capitulated to those calling for an apology. I'll leave the last word to Jim Buzinski of Outsports:

Apologies are ultimately about learning. About why our words hurt, about putting ourselves in someone else's shoes, about why something uttered in one setting is wrong in another. They are also about healing, about having people with different backgrounds, upbringings or points of views understand each other a little better. The "non-apology apology" accomplishes none of this. I am unapologetic when I say it's time to get rid of it.

[Update: Turns out Guillen did actually start his sensitivity training on Monday. The Chicago Tribune quoted Guillen as describing the training session with another F-word: "fun." He further elaborated:

"I told the guy I don't need to be polite, I need to speak better English. I understand the system better. A lot of people thought I was making an excuse of not being from this country. Because I was here 26 years, I know what every little word means to everybody. That's not an excuse. I think the guy said, `If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything.'
"I said, `If you have to say that to somebody, don't tell me what then.' I'm not going to say that. I will be the same guy, use a different word."

No word on whether air quotes were covered.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at July 4, 2006 07:10 PM