Sunday, January 08, 2012

How to say sorry–and how not to

Its been a foot in mouth couple of days what with Diane Abbott lumping all Whites together in a borderline racist remark and David Cameron saying that Ed Balls behaved in Parliament like someone with Tourette's syndrome. Not good. And both were forced to apologise. Here's what they originally said:


“White people love playing divide and rule. We should not play their game."


“He [Ed Balls] just annoys me… it’s like having someone with Tourette’s permanently sitting opposite you."

and here are their apologies:


“I apologise for any offence caused. I understand people have interpreted my comments as making generalisations about white people. I do not believe in doing that.”


"I was speaking off the cuff and if I offended anyone of course I am very sorry about that. That was not my intention at all,"

The Apologies

Now lets analyse these two apologies. Abbott's use of “Any” and Cameron’s use of “If” are both qualifiers intended to water down the offence by suggesting that there was doubt. The use of “Any” by Abbott suggests that it is at least thinkable that there was no offence. Paraphrased she was saying that there may, perhaps, be people out there who were offended. And similarly Cameron by saying “If” implies that there is doubt in the matter. If the two of them  had approached the drafting of their apology statements from the premise that there was no doubt that they had offended (which was the case) then Abbott would have said “I apologise for the offence caused” and Cameron would have said “…and that I offended anyone…”.

We can go further. The second sentence in Abbott’s apology statement implies that that people who interpret her comments as “making generalisations” are wrong because “I do not believe in doing that”. But Ms Abbott has unquestionably just done that - whether she claims that she doesn't “believe in doing it” it or not. Her original Tweet emphatically did make generalisations. It wasn’t “Some white People”    but “White people”. And the idea that because Twitter restricts to 140 characters there isn’t room to be more precise (an excuse that Abbott made) doesn't hold water at all. There was plenty of room for a qualifying “Some” in Abbott’s original Tweet.

Cameron has various excuses in his apology. Firstly he was “Speaking off the cuff”. Well! So it wasn't a pre-prepared statement or a speech written for him by someone else it was his spontaneous reaction to a question – which, incidentally,  he had plenty of time on the train journey with the friendly journalists to retract. In other words, you might think, it was Cameron’s true feelings unfiltered by the spin doctors! Unfair? I don't think so. And was it a joke? Remember what is said about many a true word being spoken in jest. Not true, in this case, because it is per se “True” but because it may truly reveal what Cameron thinks deep down.

After the “If”  in Cameron’s apology we have the use of the word “anyone” which is actually unnecessary - except as a suggestion that (again I paraphrase) most people would not be offended but some very sensitive people may inadvertently have been. Or put another way if your are normal and sensible there is no way you could take offence - but if your are a sensitive flower on the outer reaches of normality perhaps you were. That's the “anyone” excuse.

Cameron’s “That was not my intention at all” is equally bizarre. Has anybody suggested that it was Cameron's intention to offend? Not that I’ve seen. Why would the Prime Minister want to offend anybody (except possible Ed Balls - who can look after himself!). Here Cameron is apologising for something he didn't do. Of course he didn't intend to offend – so why apologise for it?

So what should they have said

Firstly the furore in both theses case cases comes because very large numbers of people indeed were offended by what they said. There is no doubt at all that is the case so that has to be recognised up front. Second there is the indisputable point that both Abbott and Cameron are decent people – she isn't a racist and he isn't a person who would make fun of handicapped minorities. Third there is the need to

  1. Accept that they made a mistake
  2. Apologise for it
  3. Move on

So in both cases the form of words I would recommend would be as follows:

“I am very sorry that I said ‘XXXXX’ – this was both wrong and offensive and I apologise unreservedly. I apologise in particular to (those with Tourette's syndrome and their carers/those in our communities who are working to further inter-racial harmony)  and I congratulate you for the great work you do which I fully support.”