Nel's New Day

May 23, 2012

Bad Apologies Show Weakness in Leadership

It’s the year of apologies. Rush Limbaugh claimed to apologize for his cruel, vicious comments about Sandra Fluke after she was so outrageous as to defend free birth control for women. Hilary Rosen made the mistake of saying that Ann Romney didn’t work without adding the three words “outside the home.” In contrast to Limbaugh’s weak comments, she gave a heartfelt apology about seeming to negate the value of Ann Romney’s work in rearing children. This week brought two more from Colorado and Arizona, both related to the “birther issue,” that President Obama may not have been born in the United States.

When Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) spoke to a group at the Elbert County Fairgrounds, “[Obama’s] just not an American.” Caught in this statement, he said, “I misspoke and I apologize.” He didn’t say he was wrong; he just misspoke. Six days later Coffman gave a longer apology in print that seemed more sincere, but caught by a reporter, he could only repeat–five times, “”I stand by my statement that I misspoke and I apologize.” That was his answer to even the question of whether he was going to say anything to the reporter, Mike Littwin.

After two months of declaring that he might not include President Obama on the Arizona general election in the fall because he didn’t have proof that the president is a U.S. citizen and over a week of national ridicule for this action, Secretary of State (AZ) Ken Bennett has apologized to the people of Arizona for embarrassing them. Instead of saying that he was wrong, he blamed the angry emails that people sent him about the issue, probably because the notorious Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has flamed the fires of birtherism in the state. Arpaio has gone so far as to use taxpayers’ money to send two men to Hawaii to “investigate” the problem. President Obama posted a copy of the long version of his birth certificate on the White House website over a year ago, but Bennett wouldn’t settle for anything less than a statement from Hawaii. The document shows that Hawaii is probably rather disgusted with the whole issue.

Mitt Romney may have issued the weakest apology of the year after The Washington Post released a story about his bullying behavior in prep school. Between chuckles, Romney told Fox News Radio’s Brian Kilmeade that he didn’t remember that he “tackled him and pinned him to the ground,” according to the Post report, before he hacked off his hair with scissors while the crying boy screamed for help. Romney, however, was positive that his behavior couldn’t have been motivated by the John Lauber’s sexual orientation.

“The thought that that fellow was homosexual was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s, so that was not the case. But as to pranks that were played back then, I don’t remember them all, but again, high school days, I did stupid things. … And if anyone was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that.” So his position is that he was cruel just on general principles and is only sorry if someone was hurt or offended.

Tom Jacobs, a writer about types of apologies, would probably classify Romney’s apology as a fake one, one or more of five types of non-apologies described by Zohar Kampf in his 2008 article published by the Journal of Pragmatics. The pseudo-apology that downplays the transgressor’s degree of responsibility has five variations: (1) apologize while undermining the claim that he offended someone; (2) apologize for the outcome but not for the act; (3) apologize for the style but not for the essence; (4) apologize for a specific component of the offense but not for the entire occurrence; and (5) apologize while using syntactic and lexical means to downgrade his responsibility, for example referring to the person’s action as a “mistake.”

After the Post article was published, Romney passed up the opportunity to decry bullying and its affect on young people, including a growing number of teenagers who have killed themselves, while still claiming a bad memory. The reference to “stupid things” and the indication that people might not have been hurt (the term “if”) makes him look indifferent to psychic scars caused by any bullying that young people experience.

According to a 2009 survey, 85% of kids who identify as LGBT have been verbally harassed at school, 40% physically harassed, and nearly 20% physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation. Those who suffer this abuse are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, and social withdrawal and are five times more likely than those not bullied to try and take their own lives.

Romney could have shown himself a leader by sending a strong message than any bullying, including anti-gay bullying, must be considered unacceptable. Instead, he chuckles his way through his weak non-apology. In a 2011 paper in the journal Psychological Science, David De Cremer of the Rotterdam School of Management, wrote that the value of contrition “may lie in convincing observers–and not victims–that the transgressor is a good person.” That’s Romney. He even managed to convince some of his followers that he should not have been criticized for his actions.

Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard who was tortured and killed in Wyoming because he was gay, said it best: “While this may seem like an innocent prank to some, it was an act of torment against a child for being different.  We expect the people we elect to be leaders in the charge against bullying so that all students are afforded the right to learn and grow in an environment free of fear.  This incident calls into question whether Mitt Romney can be an advocate for the nation’s most vulnerable children.”


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