Sorry seems to be the easiest word

Celebrity apologies are becoming commonplace – when will they grow a backbone and stand up for themselves?

“What do I do to make you want me?”
“What have I got to do to be heard?”
“What do I say when it’s all over?”

“It won’t be over until you apologise, and probably not even then. We don’t want you, you’re a disgrace, a traitor, a sexist/mysogynist, homo/trans/Islamophobe and there’s nothing you can do to be heard. You will not be heard. You will be silenced, fired from your job and erased (unpersoned, if you will) from public life.”

Not as catchy that one is it? It definitely doesn’t rhyme. Which is a shame, because it feels a lot more appropriate for our times that the original. Sorry seems to be the hardest word? Not in a world where that’s your only way out. When that’s what the mob demands. When those with the pitchforks and the torches are ready to take you out. “Sorry” is the hastily scrawled confession letter that you read out on camera in front of a balaclava-clad executioner as a last gasp plea for your life to be spared.

The crying, whimpering apology is all the rage. Indeed, it has been accepted among the rich and famous as the go-to get-out-of-Twitter-jail-free card. (This fantastic celebrity apology generator does sterling work in showing just how insincere and sickly these things can be.)

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The emperor will either give you the thumbs up, or he won’t. It depends very much on how he’s feeling at the time. Your life is no longer in your own hands.

I’ll make one thing clear before making my main point – a public apology can definitely be the right thing to do. If you’ve genuinely been an idiot or said something stupid that you regret, then saying sorry is the right thing to do.

The problem with most public apologies now is that I’m simply not buying it. I’m not buying that you regret your position when what I see all over your face is that you’re just scared of the reaction.

Twitter twitches with anticipation, ready to bring down the next young, naive weakling to stray away from the safety of the pack and be devoured.

Taking comedy as an example, there have been two high profile incidents that illustrate my point. Louis CK was accused of acting in a highly inappropriate manner towards fellow professionals over a period of many years, and he admitted it. He apologised and rightly so. You’re welcome to decide for yourself whether that apology was enough (or, indeed, whether it actually constituted an apology), at this point I don’t really care. My point is, he was wrong and as far as I can see, apologised. That doesn’t make everything right of course, but there’s no moving forward without it.

Kathy Griffin is the other end of the spectrum. She did a photoshoot (Warning – graphic) in which she held up what was supposed to resemble the severed head of the President, Mr Trump. Again, it’s up to you to decide whether this was in good taste, or funny, or not. I happen to think not, but who cares what I think. If I don’t like it I don’t have to see it. What really irritated me is that she succumbed to the pressure of the mob. She was hounded and blasted and she caved. “I beg for your forgiveness. I went too far”.

Oh for goodness’ sake. Get a grip. She made a joke that a lot of people didn’t like, she got a huge response, then apologised for the joke. A catastrophic precedent to set.

You may think “well if she’s sorry, who are you to say that she shouldn’t apologise?” Which would be a good point, except that she proved just how not sorry she was by recanting the apology, citing exactly the kind of media pressure that I’m talking about. I’m glad she did it, but worried that she bowed in the first place.

I’m not saying it’s easy, and God knows I’ve never had to face that kind of pressure. I don’t want to be too harsh on those who have apologised just to end it all, but I do want to highlight how dangerous it is.

In terms of comedy, there’s always the risk a joke goes too far. Limits are tested, boundaries are pushed. But Bill Burr puts it beautifully:

Steering away from the comedy world is where it becomes truly dangerous. Very few comedians will apologise for their jokes, and rightly so. But we have a much better line of defence than the average person. A joke is a joke, it isn’t meant to be taken seriously. The likes of Frankie Boyle, Jimmy Carr, Bill Burr – they say some awful things. But they’re jokes. If you don’t like them, don’t listen to them, and definitely don’t go to a comedy club. The thought of any of them apologising is grotesque, and would indeed be suicidal.

Others don’t have this line of defence. They’re out in the open, giving their opinions or saying something off the cuff and they’re on the hook for everything they say. Twitter twitches with anticipation, ready to bring down the next young, naive weakling to stray away from the safety of the pack and be devoured.

Take Shania Twain for example. Discussing the American President, the Canadian singer recently told a Guardian interviewer: “I would have voted for him because, even though he was offensive, he seemed honest. Do you want straight or polite? Not that you shouldn’t be able to have both. If I were voting, I just don’t want b******t. I would have voted for a feeling that it was transparent. And politics has a reputation of not being that, right?”

Perfectly reasonable. Not a position I’d take, but a considered one. She even leaves an open question at the end. But could she be left alone? You already know the answer to this one by now. Then came the grovelling apology.

“I would like to apologise to anybody I have offended,” she wrote. “The question caught me off guard. As a Canadian, I regret answering this unexpected question without giving my response more context.

“I was trying to explain, in a response to a question about the election, that my limited understanding was that the president talked to a portion of America like an accessible person they could relate to, as he was not a politician,” she continued.

“My answer was awkward, but certainly should not be taken as representative of my values nor does it mean I endorse him.”

Now, actually when you look at it, some of it is reasonable. If she’d just not started it with such a subservient submission, it might be more tolerable. For me, she could have kept it all, but just replaced the first sentence with something more sarcastic and caustic, like “I don’t need to explain myself to you, you massive bunch of perpetually outraged morons. But since you asked so nicely, here’s more clarity on what I actually think.”

My admiration for those who have the courage to stare down the ridiculous reactions to any little thing they say and steadfastly refuse to apologise for something they’re not sorry for, grows by the day. It’s getting harder, sure. But that makes it all the more impressive. Especially for liberals, who more and more have to face down their own side.

Bill Maher, in a monologue on his show ‘Real Time’ said this:

“In 2016, conservatives won the White House, both Houses of Congress and almost two thirds of Governorships and State Legislatures. Whereas liberals on the other hand caught Steve Martin calling Carrie Fisher ‘beautiful’ in a tweet and made him take it down”

And the rest of it just gets better.

Germaine Greer also absolutely gets it. She has fought her whole life for the feminist cause, something that will not have endeared her to a great many people. But that was the point – if you’ve got something to say, then you have to say it. Where would any cause be now if it apologised for hurting the feelings of someone else?

And boy will she not apologise. She gave an interview to BBC’s Newsnight in which she discussed trans people and feminism. She had just been ‘no-platformed’ by Cardiff University for her views and was absolutely not backing down.

People who for decades were thankful that someone so bold was on their side and fighting for their cause, suddenly can’t believe she won’t apologise to them now that they’ve taken a different route.

In the interview, she sums up her ‘controversial’ opinion thus: “I’m not saying that people should not be allowed to go through that procedure [transition surgery], what I’m saying is that it doesn’t make them a woman. It happens to be an opinion. It is not a prohibition.”

She is asked by Kirsty Wark, “Do you understand how they might feel like you’re being hurtful towards them?”, which seems to be standard questioning in interviews now, asking about people’s feelings rather than facts or legitimately held and defensible opinions (a bit like in the now infamous ‘so what you’re saying is…’ Cathy Newman interview with Jordan Peterson). Not “can you explain why you think that?”, not “what evidence do you have to support that position?”, just a slap down about hurting feelings and making people cry. Greer obviously bristles, replying, “People are hurtful to me all the time. Try being an old woman, I mean for goodness’ sake. People get hurt all the time, I’m not about to walk on eggshells.”

She goes on to explain the importance of tact, indicating for example that she would refer to someone with the pronoun of their choice if asked to do so, purely out of “courtesy”. I wholeheartedly agree here. I see no reason to be rude or disrespectful towards people, unless they deserve it.

But then comes the kicker. Wark asks, “Would you ever consider saying something more ameliorating…?”, which is exactly the point at which the usual response is to collapse, to cave in and just make it all go away. The point at which you have a decision to make. A decision that could have very real consequences to your life.

Greer replies, “No. I’m getting fed up with this. I’ve had things thrown at me, I’ve been accused of things I’ve never done or said, people seem to have no concern about evidence, or indeed, even about libel.”

Not things that usually matter to people engaging in such hostile behaviour, of course. But things that still make a lot of people back down. By calling it out, by not succumbing to the easy option, by fronting it out and stating outright and clearly her position, which is considered utterly blasphemous by the new religion of identity politics, Greer establishes herself as someone who will not be browbeaten into submission. This is a laudable stand and one that ought to beheld up as a shining example of how to deal with these situations. I make no comment on her opinions, such as they are. Merely on how she defends them. People who for decades were thankful that someone so bold was on their side and fighting for their cause, suddenly can’t believe she won’t apologise to them now that they’ve taken a different route.

“It’s sad, so sad
It’s a sad, sad situation
And it’s getting more and more absurd”

You’re telling me.

“It’s sad, so sad
Why can’t we talk it over?
Oh it seems to me
That sorry seems to be the easiest word”

To borrow a snide, sanctimonious trope from a typical Guardian BTL commenter – “There. Fixed that for you.”

The Left has cultivated an image of viciousness and intolerance. This needs to change

When the Left operates with bad faith, it damages its own cause

It is something that has been niggling away at me for some time, indeed a reason I started this site. Why do so many conversations these days end in an argument, smears, lies and bitterness? Why does this happen particularly online? Why are tribes forming where once there were simple disagreements? I think I may be stumbling toward an answer.

Now please, forgive me if this has been blindingly obvious to everyone else and I’m late to the party. But it seems to me that we have no desire to believe that our opponents are arguing in good faith. We assume ill of them, we figure malign intention on their part and, above all, we believe they must be bad people.

I don’t see how any debate, discussion or argument can bear any fruit if this good faith is absent. The reason I offer the pages of this blog out to anyone who wishes to write for it is because I want people to give an unpopular opinion in an environment that encourages them to think freely and have the best assumed of them. If you give an ‘off the party line’ opinion, you have, by definition, thought it through, because the backlash wouldn’t be worth it unless you believed it to be so. Again I offer – if you have an unpopular opinion, get in touch.

The viciousness of much public discourse these days can be attributed to a lack of good faith. Left wingers assume Conservatives are evil and sadistic, Tories assume Corbynistas want state control over which trousers you’re allowed to wear that day, and so on and so forth.

But that is to provide a balance that I’m sure isn’t a fair one. I hate to come across all Lefty-bashing here, but it seems to be well documented that the Left is increasingly savage and hostile to its opponents. Dissent is deemed intolerable and impure to so many on that side of the spectrum. Providing me with examples of it happening the other way round are fine, if you want to waste your time. I don’t claim it is only one way, it definitely happens both ways – I merely offer a note of caution to those who claim themselves to be ‘kinder, gentler‘ people. Is your bar really going to be the cowardly and deflecting phrase, ‘yeh well they do the same thing to us’? I sincerely hope not. If it is, you offer no virtue that separates you from your opponents.

Let me just make that completely clear – I do not claim this is solely a Left wing problem. But it is one that should feel more urgent to those on the Left.

The Left is the wing that I should naturally be on. I try to have opinions on every issue individually, but inevitably there will be overarching principles that will inform my outlook. Most of those tend to be ‘liberal’. But I cannot count myself as among the modern Left. Elements of both wings may share the attributes of hostility, nastiness and downright rudeness, but the Right makes little outright claim to be the opposite. It is the Left that self-declares its occupation of the grounds of ‘kinder, gentler politics‘, ‘reason and science‘, ‘data-led policy’. And yet it simply isn’t so. And therefore there is a hypocrisy that cannot be tolerated by anyone with half a brain or a conscience.

If it were indeed ‘kind and gentle’, it would not assume ill-intention of its opponents or shout and scream at them. If it were a lover of ‘reason and science’, it would not shout down those who question, for instance, new gender orthodoxies, but would engage based on research. If it were ‘data-led’, it would not engage in spurious, politically driven nonsense that clearly defies the data.

The obsession with the word ‘hate’, a word my mother told me not to use unless in extreme circumstances, is now so all-pervasive that mere disagreement is now deemed hate. Disagree with gay marriage? You hate gays. Hate them. All of them. Disagree with abortion? You hate women. Vote Tory? You hate the poor. Concerned about Islamic terrorism? You hate Muslims. Want immigration to be slowed down a little? You hate immigrants. No nuance, no discussion, just straight to the extreme. Straight to the sliming and the smearing.

When even the CiF pages of the Guardian are filled with those on the Left denouncing that newspaper for straying even a tiny bit off the party line, you get a sense that something isn’t quite right. It was savaged in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader (the paper having backed Yvette Cooper – sounds crazy now, doesn’t it?). Things have rarely been better since.

I am an occasional listener to Sam Harris’s ‘Waking Up‘ podcast, among others. He is an atheist, I am a Christian. He believes free will is not a fundamentally defensible concept. I believe it is central to our being. There are plenty more disagreements I could point out. But I believe he is honest, a man of integrity and fully believes every word he says, and therefore worth listening to. That is all I would ever ask of a person – its a reason I will never listen to the likes of Milo Yiannopolous or Katie Hopkins, because I simply do not accept that they really believe in what they’re saying. They’re professional trolls who feed their children and their lifestyles on the money they make from upsetting the Lefties who will consistently rise to their bait. They are not serious people. I don’t believe they should be stopped from speaking publicly, but I won’t be listening when they do.

Mr Harris has recently been in the middle of some controversy, which you can read for yourself, or better yet listen to his discussion of it. It is far too long and detailed to go through here, but suffice to say, he has been attacked by many on the Left for a particular podcast. His most recent opponent, Ezra Klein, the editor of Vox, took a completely bad-faith interpretation of the podcast and would not back down from his position despite plenty of evidence to show that he ought to. He could still have disagreed, but still have assumed good faith on behalf of his opponent. He steadfastly refused to do so.

I was struck by the end of one the podcasts in this controversy, and it made me realise just what a problem this is for the Left more so than the Right.

A listener contacted Sam to ask: “You come off cosy with those on the Right, and then when a blowout like the one with Ezra Klein comes, it seems you can’t have the same warmth of relations and good spirit with a straight up Liberal”.

Sam explains why this misses the point spectacularly (I have shortened the monologue to sum up the key parts – highlights are all mine):

“I, as you know, disagree with Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro [two men the writer had highlighted as Right wing examples] about many, many things…but the point here is not disagreement, it is slanderous misinterpretation. And that almost always comes at me from the Left…With Ben, I made a joke on our podcast together and Ben came away not realising that it was a joke, and so misrepresented my views elsewhere. I reached out to Ben by email: “Ben, you’ve got me all wrong. That was a joke”. What did he do?…He apologised immediately, he regretted misrepresenting me.

“Same with Jordan Peterson when he got on Dave Rubin’s show. He said the opposite of one of my core beliefs. It is the centre of the bullseye for me intellectually, and he was getting it wrong. So I wrote to Jordan, with whom I had a painful collision on the podcast, and I said “Jordan, you’ve got me completely wrong. You’re misstating my views.” What did Jordan do? An instantaneous apology. He said ‘Sorry, I guess I have to read your books so I know what I’m talking about when we have our public events.”

“That is a difference that cannot be exaggerated. Peterson and Shapiro and I will go on to disagree about many things, it could be very heated…but there is a world of difference between bad faith misrepresentations and honest engagement with a person’s ideas.”

This guy’s whole experience of disagreeing with people on the Left is disheartening in the extreme. His experience of disagreeing with people on the Right is worlds apart from that, and is the way things should be. This is only one example of course, but I highly doubt this is not typical. My question to the Left would be, do you really want to concede the ground of honest, reasonable debate to the Right? When protesters can storm a lecture given by Jacob Rees-Mogg and he comes out as the level-headed, reasonable one, does that not set off an alarm bell? You’re conceding this ground to your opponents and it will be hard to wrest it back.

Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine had this to say:

I’m not a fan of the term ‘SJWs’ (at this point it just comes across as a pejorative), but the point is made all the same. You get an insight into why more and more find themselves moving away from the Left and going elsewhere. There is no longer much tolerance or respect over there. It’s shocking to see otherwise lovely, intelligent people spit bile over those with whom they disagree, rather than simply have the disagreement.

They seek to destroy, to burn, to have fired, to shun, to have removed from social media, to silence, to shut down anyone who will dare defy them. It is savage and bloodthirsty, as stomach churning to watch as it is to see a lion tear up a gazelle.

 

This assumption that ‘they must think that because they are bad people or have malign intentions’ is so unhealthy. If you can’t believe your opponent is arguing in good faith (unless they’ve clearly and repeatedly demonstrated otherwise – again, see Hopkins, Yiannopolous, Klein), then not only are you doing them a disservice, you are doing yourself one as well.

The image that leads this piece is of students protesting Charles Murray’s appearance at Middlebury in the US. He was invited to speak by conservatives in the college and was due to debate a professor who was planning to challenge him hard. He was not just going to speak freely – he was going to have a robust dialogue with somebody who totally opposed him and his ideas. But then the idiots started to shout him down as he spoke. Then what happened?

“When Murray and Stanger finished their dialogue [having moved to a secret place], they found themselves surrounded by protesters. The protesters—some of whom were wearing masks and may not have been Middlebury students—began pushing them. When Stanger tried to shield Murray, according a Middlebury spokesman, a protester grabbed her hair and twisted her neck.

“Murray, Stanger and their escorts made it to a waiting car, but the protesters “pounded on it, rocked it back and forth, and jumped onto the hood,” according to The New York Times. One took a large traffic sign, attached to a concrete base, and placed it in front of the car to prevent it from leaving.

“Finally, Murray and Stanger got away. They had planned to eat dinner at a local restaurant, but, upon learning that the protesters planned to disrupt their meal, left town altogether. Stanger later went to the hospital, where she received a neck brace. “

Kinder and gentler, apparently. Hardly. This was a vicious attack on someone who was going to debate on their side. Complete insanity, and what happens when you refuse to engage in good faith argument.

Much like yesterday’s post, I’m trying to help. I’m trying to show you how this looks to those outside your bubble. My main source of news and comment is the Guardian, but I venture to the Spectator as well, the Telegraph, the Independent, Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday. I listen to people like Ben Shapiro, Christina Hoff Sommers, Jordan Peterson as well as Owen Jones, Polly Toynbee and Gary Younge to name very few in my attempts to have as rounded a viewpoint as possible.

When you go to the places outside the bubble, you see so many people who are natural Lefties but who have either been shunned or can’t bear to be a part of it anymore. If you don’t care, then fine, that’s not a problem. I won’t tell you what you shouldn’t or shouldn’t care about. But if you keep wondering why you’re losing elections or not being listened to or not being taken seriously, you have to start listening to the other side, and not whilst seething at the temerity of these people to dare defy the social norms.

I had a fantastic knockabout debate on Facebook with a small group of friends before the EU referendum. I will keep coming back to this time as a perfect example of peers treating each other with respect and dignity, because whilst we fundamentally disagreed, the basis of the whole discussion was that each of us was arguing in good faith. Without that, it could not have happened. We were all sincere and honest, and nobody insulted or attacked anyone else.

It really can be like that. But one side has to make the first move. Lefties – please let it be you.