The sorry mouse

In our modern times, we’re increasingly exposed to PR and politics. It’s had some odd effects and has changed our language in surprising and yet subtle ways. One of the most insidious is the non-apology.

The non-apology is the art of seeming to take responsibility and apologise for something whilst in reality doing nothing of the sort. It’s become a political and corporate favourite and you now see it everywhere. If you’ve read a newspaper or see a television news programme any time in the last ten years, you’ll have seen a politician say:

Mistakes were made

It sounds quite good on the surface. There’s a clear expression that something has been messed up and that’s all well and good. But like with most non-apologies, there’s this odd use of the passive voice that takes any strength and meaning away from what is said. Let’s analyse it in detail.

Right from the first word there’s equivocation and an attempt to avoid blame. Mistakes are little unfortunate incidents of no real consequence. If I drop the milk, that’s a mistake. If I mess up my words why I’m writing, that’s a mistake. If I systematically allow hundreds of thousands of people into the country without checking their passports properly, that’s not a mistake. The word mistake is used to lessen the significance of what has occurred. A mistake is a harmless little boo-boo where no one’s really at fault. A mistake is, by implication, unintentional. The recent passport fuck-up by the UK Border Agency came as a result of a deliberate policy change, thus it wasn’t a mistake; but labelling it as one is a way of avoiding responsibility and, most importantly, blame.

Note also the lack of a pronoun. Mistakes were made? By whom? “I made mistakes” is an active voice construction where responsibility is clearly taken. By dropping the pronoun, it’s no longer clear who screwed up – it could be anyone. Indeed, it doesn’t even assert that the mistakes were made by the parties that the speaker is representing in their statement. It could well be that they believe themselves to be blameless and are citing the mistakes of others. In fact, many of these statements are just that – as far as the speaker is concerned, the mistake was letting anyone else find out.

Even the “were made” part is deliberately passive. It doesn’t say when the ‘mistakes’ occurred so, whilst the listener may think that the mistakes being referred to are the ones they’re thinking of, it may actually be some other ‘mistakes’ of which they are unaware. Every single word of this passive bullshit is designed to mislead.

I’m sorry you feel that way

This is a true classic of passive buck-passing. Instead of the speaker taking responsibility for their actions that have resulted in hurting the feelings of others, they are instead implying that the fault is on the part of the listener. If the sentence was “I’m sorry [that I’ve] made you feel that way”, it is a least an assertion of responsibility, but it still falls short of expressing regret for the offence caused.

One would have to say “I’m sorry for what I did to make you feel that way” to actually express remorse. By an ostensibly-innocent shortening of the phrase, all responsibility and regret is removed. Charming.

Now let’s take a look at non-apology example in a current news story:

I now realise how my comments could be construed as racist

That was Steve Williams, former caddy to Tiger Woods ‘apologising’ after calling his ex-employer a “black asshole” during the Annual Caddy Awards. This is a prime example of that old favourite of Prince Philip’s unlucky PR man – “innocent remarks taken out of context.”

The offence itself was interesting as no one objected to Woods being described as an “asshole”, but to call him a “black asshole” added a new significance that caused offence. Whilst it would be interesting to examine whether calling someone a “white asshole” or a “Chinese asshole” would be similarly offensive, that’s for another article.

Steve Williams sought to offer an apology and then didn’t. By suggesting that his comments “could be construed as racist”, he’s disclaiming any responsibility on his part and implying that it was those hearing his remarks and misunderstanding them who created an inference of racism in their own minds.

We like to think that we know our own minds and choose our own words, but we tend to absorb the words and phrases that we hear in everyday life and in the media. Ten years ago, non-apologies were the preserve of the few politicians savvy enough to use them to squirm out of a bad situation, but now they’re commonplace. When a train station platform announcement says “We’re sorry for any inconvenience caused” it’s an attempt to limit responsibility by relegating the knock-on effects of a cancelled train to the ranks of mere inconveniences. That the voice is often synthesised or recorded leaves one wondering just who “we” are.

I try hard to avoid using non-apologies. Clement Freud once said he’d like on his gravestone “No offence caused unintentionally” and I very much like that idea. Whilst our language inevitably changes, it require some vigilance to avoid falling into the use of non-apologies ourselves.

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