July 30, 2007

Spitzer limps through a public apology

In an op-ed piece in Sunday's New York Times we find still one more public apology, this one by New York's governor, Eliot Spitzer. Language Log has been alert to this speech act in its past posts on non-apologies here and here and here and here, as well as in Geoff Nunberg's assessment of what makes an apology work effectively. Now we hear from Spitzer about some recent events that happened in his office.

From what Spitzer wrote in his apology, I paraphrased his points in the sequence he said them, followed by my own brief comments in parentheses:

1. Nothing illegal happened on my watch.

(Whew! What a relief.)

2. What my staff did was wrong.

(He wasn't directly responsible, although it happened on his watch.)

3. I've already apologized to the Senate majority leader.

(He apologized for what his staff did.)

4. What happened is not what we are about.

(This is  not their/our typical behavior.)

5. I warned my staff to avoid this.

(See? It was their fault, not his.)

6. Some forgot my warning and created the appearance of wrong-doing.

(They didn't do this intentionally, though; they just had a memory lapse.)

7. We acted at once and got rid of some fine, distinguished people even though they didn't break the law.

(The royal "we" fired some really good people who didn't do anything illegal.)

8. What happened should not deter our good progress.

(Can't pass up the opportunity for a bit of p.r. here.)

9. Partisan politics should stay out of this.

(A warning in an apology?)

10. We will move forward anyway.

(Not exactly a vow the his staff won't repeat this in the future.)

You can reach your own conclusions about the effectiveness of this as a public apology but it's possible to note a few things that the governor might have done differently. First, nowhere are we told what the offense was (only that it was not illegal) and, despite the fact that he admits it happened on his watch, Spitzer tries to make it clear that he was not personally responsible for whatever this was, making "under my watch" a bit confusing. He says he warned his staff not to do whatever it was they did. They just "forgot" his warning (nothing intentional here) and gave the "appearance" (not specified how they managed to accomplish this) of doing something (still unspecified) that was actually wrong. He  fired them for creating this "appearance" (maybe it's our fault for not recognizing this as only an "appearance") of doing something wrong (still unspecified) because "it" (creating such an appearance) is not what his office is all about. Nor will this unspecified, not-illegal event that led to the public appearance of something wrong stop Spitzer and his remaining staff members from continuing to do the long list of good things his office has been doing -- just in case we happened to forget these and need to be reminded. And finally, he gives a warning, which seems odd in an apology: his opponents better not try to convert this into political partisanship.

Applying Geoff's list of reported conditions that an utterance is said to satisfy  if the utterance is to count as a true apology, we learn that the apologizer is supposed to regret the act, feel sorry about it, accept responsibility for it, and vow not to repeat it. It would have been helpful for Spitzer first to have mentioned the offensive act that he is now regretting. Maybe everyone in New York (and perhaps  even beyond) already knows that his aides are accused of misusing the State Police to try to tarnish his political opponent, but an apology looks pretty lame when it fails to mention the thing for which the apology is being made. We can infer that Spitzer feels sorry about what happened, and he undoubtedly is. He apparently can't vow to not repeat this act because in doing so, he'd have to tell us what it was.

Maybe Spitzer's effort to apologize is better than Gonzalez' "mistakes were made," but it falls short in many respects. I like what Geoff said near the end of his post:

In the contemporary theater of contrition, the point of ritualistic apologies isn't to demonstrate that an offender is really, truly sorry, but only that public opinion has the power to exact the expression of self-abnegation (or in Goffman's terms, self-splitting) that's inherent in a formal apology.

Update: Stacy Furrer writes that she tells her kids, "If you can't name what you did, you're not owning it."

Posted by Roger Shuy at July 30, 2007 10:17 AM