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.”

Labour reaps with Munroe Bergdorf what it sowed with Toby Young

Do we really want to play this game? Trawling our social media histories can’t end well for anybody.

There’s a storyline in the TV show ‘The Thick Of It” in which the main characters are subject to an independent inquiry on the subject of ‘leaking’. Leaking had become one of those practices that everyone did, everyone knew was going on and just got on with it. Whether it was a genuine scandal, or just the way the government worked, everybody knew that it wouldn’t look good with a full media glare shining on it, despite the fact that this was exactly how the media got their stories.

So when one of the parties (the party of government at the time) announces an inquiry in order to gain some political leverage, the whole thing looks like it’s going to collapse. Ollie, a special adviser almost crumbles at the news. “An inquiry into all of leaking – all of leaking! We are so…! We are so screwed.”

To which Alastair Campb…sorry, Malcolm Tucker replies, “He’s done it. That chinless horse-fiddler. Our f***lustrious PM has opened Pandora’s f***ing Box and curled a massive steamer right into it.”

Which is to say, well done mate. We’re all going down now. And if I am, I’ll be dragging you down with me.

Both parties are constantly trying to one-up each other, looking for any tiny crack in the armour to ram a sword into and prise power. But they both know there are some roads that they can never start down, because they know the whole house of cards will come tumbling down and take them all out.

It’s starting to feel like the modern day version of this is what the Spectator have started calling ‘The Digital Inquisition’. And Labour and the Left generally must be starting to regret opening this particular Pandora’s box and curling a…well, you get the gist.

Only recently, the journalist and director of the New Schools Network, Toby Young stepped down from a new advisory position that he taken up in the Office for Students following an unprecedented campaign against him that was based on a trawl of his social media history. It turned out that he had said some unpleasant and shocking things in the past, and this was brought into the full media spotlight for all to pick over.

He was jumped on – Angela Rayner, Jess Phillips, Owen Jones, all took chunks out of him and the government for this apparently unwise appointment. I saw plenty of it from my own friends and connections on social media. Petitions, campaigns and reposting of his old tweets were paraded around for all to sign, join and despise.

Now, I’m not (here, anyway) taking a position on this. You’re welcome to make your own mind up on whether Mr Young was an appropriate choice for this post. My point here is that this tactic is not something that will only hit one side of the political divide. This has been proven in the last week, as Labour found themselves caught in their own net.

The transgender model and campaigner Munroe Bergdorf had been appointed to the Labour party’s LGBT advisory board, but stepped down after a similar campaign showed some highly unpleasant comments that she had made in the past on social media.

I’ll be completely honest, in my opinion this person is a deeply unpleasant individual with some shocking, awful opinions. I’ve heard her speak where she can give as much context as she like to her views, and I find her to be ill-informed and spiteful. She is, as far as I’m concerned, an idiot.

What I don’t like, and will defend her as much as I will defend anyone on this point, is the stripping of context around something that someone has said and presenting it as the whole truth. This is something I will come back to in a future piece, but for now let’s just say that whenever you see a small quote, especially when used to attack or smear someone, ALWAYS look for the context around it. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve read something, thought “well there’s no amount of context that could give that any credence”, only to click the link and find it more understandable. So please, when you read anything about what Munroe has said, read it in its full context. And do yourself a favour and do the same for Toby Young, Jeremy Corbyn or anyone else you’ve taken a dislike to.

I really don’t want to play this game where any appointment is followed by a trawl of their history. We will have to get to the point where we’re going to have to see our past selves in the context in which they were said, and give each other a break. Can any of us really admit that we’d be happy for anyone to trawl back into our archives before we’d had a chance to do so ourselves?

It doesn’t help that everything we have ever said on social media is presented (if you search for it now) in the modern UI (user interface) – that is, whatever Twitter or Facebook looks like now. Imagine we could see a post from 2010 in the UI that 2010 Facebook had. It would already put it into its context effectively. Old photographs and videos are black and white – it gives them context immediately. If we could put them all into full HD colour, we’d subconsciously be applying our modern biases and culture to an age that didn’t have them.

If you want to do this, then fine, but it’s going to take us all down. I promise you, though, it isn’t a fight worth having, and it’s up to all of us to take responsibility as individuals to start giving people a break. This starts with your enemies. Because I can assure you, if you don’t apply the same rules to those on your side as you do to your enemies, you will be open to justifiable attack.

And you can’t say you weren’t warned.

Be careful using superlatives – they won’t work when you really need them

Do you really need to reach for the strongest word you can think of?

Several years ago, we attended the wedding of some friends of ours. A lovely couple, celebrating the happiest day of their lives. It was a wonderful occasion.

The groom is, shall we say, a very positive chap. Excitable and effusive, he radiates warmth and positivity. He also uses superlatives a lot. In everyday life, this is charming and fun, but when making a speech on your wedding day, can lead you into some problems.

All the usual bases were covered during this speech. Thanks were proffered to both sides of the family, all who had helped, his ushers, the bridesmaids – you know the drill. In the thanks came the superlatives, and why wouldn’t they? He was delighted and having a wonderful time.

The in-laws were ‘amazing’, the people who did the flowers and the food ‘incredible’, the ushers ‘absolutely wonderful’, the bridesmaids ‘astonishingly gorgeous’, all said with gusto and depth of feeling. He definitely meant what he was saying.

But then he turned to his bride, his new wife, the absolute pinnacle of the whole thing. And there were no words left. How could she be ‘amazing’? She’d only be as good as her parents. How about ‘incredible’? Nope, already blown that one on the food. ‘Gorgeous’? What, only as attractive as the bridesmaids? He was reduced to mere noises and hand gestures as he grasped and groped around for words that were not forthcoming.

Now of course, in this instance, having used up all of his superlatives meant he came across as properly speechless in a charming, Hugh Grant-like way. We could all clearly see the love he had for his new wife, and frankly, words like ‘amazing’ and ‘incredible’ would feel lacking in this situation anyway. All who have gazed at their bride and had to say something about them in front of all those you know and love will have felt this feeling. No words seem to do the job adequately.

On the flip side, though, the use of negative superlatives can have a damaging effect, particularly when said by public figures or uttered in public life. The range of events that people are expected to comment on is broad, and yet there seems to be a consistent thread of going for the most extreme word for everything.

Using a word like ‘disgusted’, however relevant to the situation, blunts it to some degree. If you’re ‘disgusted’ by hearing of the crimes of a serious criminal like a murderer or a rapist, that seems pretty appropriate. Who could argue with that? But if the Foreign Secretary blurts out some silly notion about bridges or cake, is the word ‘disgusted’ really what we should be reaching for? Using it here leaves it a less effective weapon when you next want to use it.

Let’s take some recent examples, gleaned from a brief trawl through Twitter, searching on some key terms.

John Major has called for a second vote on the EU/UK deal. I would disagree with that, but it’s a fair enough, perfectly defensible position to take. One tweet reads “John Major advocates ignoring a democratic vote – DISGUSTING”. Really? Is it not just disagreeable? Or disappointing? Another called him “an absolute disgrace”. Wow. What are you going to do when a real disgrace happens, like a serious crime or a government scandal? Use the same word?

The word ‘appalling’ is pretty strong. One might be ‘appalled’ by the expenses scandal, or perhaps the UK-Saudi Arabia arms deals. These seem fairly reasonable uses for it. But customer service? Poor website design? These are just two things that some prominent people are ‘appalled’ about.

Perhaps Twitter is not the best place to be searching for reasonable people (I avoid it as much as possible), but many people spend a lot of time there and this debasing of our language in order to prove you’re the most outraged or the most angry about something has a wider effect.

Modern politicians feel the need to react to everything with the strongest possible terms, and very often, on Twitter. It means that when there is a genuinely horrid event or an opponent does something actually ‘shocking’, these words will not have the meaning they once did. And for what? So they can virtue signal away, free of the possible repercussions of not ‘condemning something in the strongest possible terms?’ Oh, grow up.

One story that I have been following for a while and has really, shall we say, got my goat, is the reaction of the Church of England to accusations made about a long dead Bishop, George Bell. I shan’t go into the detail of the whole affair here, but suffice to say I have, on occasion, been stirred to serious anger. But in one response of the Bishop Bell Group to the Archbishop of Canterbury, these men and women (fiercely fighting for the reputation of a man much revered and currently being destroyed) use words that seem mild in comparison to some examples I have given. And yet, the words have weight and force behind them.

‘Profound dismay’ may be a term further down on the ladder of superlative than ‘absolute disgust’ or ‘utter disgrace’, and yet when it is said by these highly literate individuals speaking as a collective, it strikes at the heart with frightening power, rendering those other words frail and meek. This letter was sent after previous correspondence that described the position taken by the office of the Archbishop as ‘unfortunate’, ‘disappointing’ and ‘unbecoming’.

Have no doubt, these words were said by a group of people who would doubtless, at times, have been brimming with a seething righteous anger. The group would not have formed without such a strength of feeling. But they have applied calm and reserve to their public utterances, which has meant that when the struggle has reached its high point, they can wield words with power and might.

Exercising some restraint with our language would be a highly desirable step towards civility, in my view. Applying some context, reacting slowly, having some perspective – all things that would need to be in place. But we all must take individual responsibility. It’ll never happen if we constantly try to out-react each other.

Let’s take a step back, and reset.

Taking the time to think – In praise of not reacting instantly

How long does it really take to get to a fully formed view? Probably longer than composing a tweet…

I was struck when watching an interview with Ian Hislop  (mainstay of BBC panel show Have I Got News For You and, more to the point, editor of satirical magazine Private Eye), by a response he gave to a question put to him.

He was asked “In this age of 24 hour news, how are you able to run a self-described ‘current affairs’ magazine which publishes every fortnight?”

His answer was swift and enlightening.

“Well the great thing about publishing every fortnight is that you have time to think. The problem with rolling 24 hour news is that you just go bleh bleh bleh. So the news comes out unformulated and the comment comes out equally quickly. So quite often, you see a story and think ‘well that’s obviously not true’, and then people comment on it and you think ‘well why have you commented on that, it’s not true?’ and we’re going to find out it’s not true in about an hour anyway. There’s just a huge amount of space filling. With a fortnightly, by the time you come out there’s a chance to say something interesting.”

Clearly, the term ‘current affairs’ has evolved as the word ‘current’ more and more means ‘what happened in the last 3 hours’. There won’t be any getting away from it – as reaction is available instantly, with social media (particularly Twitter) allowing a story to travel around the world with the click of a button, reaction will be given instantly.

Perhaps, then, it is down to each of us to consider what our reaction actually is. While we can add our voice to the conversation instantly, is it worth tempering that voice with a little reserve, even scepticism? An initial dipping of the toe before a fuller, more measured response later? It’s something I certainly need to consider – blameless I am not.

The panic that takes hold of most journalists or commentators if a story breaks and they’re not close it is not a new thing. But whilst in the past that would have meant they didn’t have the scoop for the following day’s release, now it means they are instantly a million miles away from it, with no way to get to the centre as it breaks all day long, while their colleagues or rivals dominate. This induces a habit of pushing everything, however ill-formed or unconsidered into the public domain as quickly as possible.

24 hour news is not necessarily a bad thing. The ability to know about things straight away is a remarkable technological feat, and one which doesn’t need to be reversed. But I would suggest that the culture needs to mellow. A thing has happened – ok, fine. Let’s talk about it, but do we need to have a fully formed opinion on it immediately as well? Can’t we wait a week for that? Why are we inviting commentators into the studio to give their ‘immediate reaction’? Why are we reading out viewer emails? Can’t the reporters and the journalists just report what they know so far without the reach for ‘what the people think about it as well’?

I read an old post on this site that spoke about the Gibraltar crisis. Remember that? Course you don’t, but I bet you reacted strongly when it happened. I only left it a couple of days myself.

I may come back to this at some point, because I’m sure there will be some example that will illustrate the point better than this general observation.

But in the meantime, perhaps we can all just step back for a moment whenever we are invited to give our view on an event that is 5 minutes old. Have we considered all the angles? Am I sure this is even true? Does it even matter? What will happen if I wait? These simple questions have recently turned would could have been a blind rage into not even bothering to react for me. And boy, does that make a difference.