Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Semiotics of Public Apologies

I've followed the Mel Gibson Is An Anti-Semite brouhaha with a sort of prurient interest--it's like watching The Wicked Witch of the West melt before your eyes, watching a burrito explode in the microwave, or the most common metaphor, a trainwreck before your eyes. It's hard to resist watching or reading about a public meltdown like that. There is a lot of schadenfreude to it. But that is the very shallow reaction. There is much to think about here. Slate had particularly good coverage of this. I like Slate for it's focus on legal issues, racism, and free speech. Also, it has a rather witty and cheeky writing style.

Christopher Hitchens on whether Mel Gibson is Anti-Semitic:

I also think that the difference between the blood-alcohol levels—and indeed the
speed limits—that occasioned the booking are insufficient to explain the
expletives (as Gibson has since claimed in a typically self-pitying and verbose statement put out by his publicist). One does not abruptly decide, between the first and second vodka, or the ticks of the indicator of velocity, that the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion are valid after all.

Timothy Noah on the same question, but with a textual analysis of the police report:

There remained at least a theoretical possibility that this was all just a
terrible misunderstanding.That possibility no longer exists. The best case that
can be made for Gibson's belief system now is that he's anti-Semitic only when
he's three sheets to the wind. And really, now. Are you in the habit of
declaring, "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world" when you get
pie-eyed? Or simply of muttering, "Fucking Jews"? Or of asking your arresting
officer, "Are you a Jew?" (Here Gibson revealed an anti-Jewish bigotry so
all-consuming that he couldn't even get his ethnic stereotypes straight. The
Jews control international banking, Mel. It's the Irish who control the police.)
For good measure, Gibson turned on a policewoman observing his meltdown and
said, "What do you think you're looking at, sugar tits?"

Gibson's apology

“There is no excuse, nor should there be any tolerance, for anyone who thinks or
expresses any kind of anti-Semitic remark. I want to apologize specifically to
everyone in the Jewish community for the vitriolic and harmful words that I said
to a law enforcement officer the night I was arrested on a D.U.I. charge. I am a
public person, and when I say something, either articulated and thought out, or
blurted out in a moment of insanity, my words carry weight in the public arena.”

So should this apology be accepted?

Kim Masters noted Hollywood's willingness to forgive and forget. She does make a good point that if Hollywood could forgive and celebrate Roman Polanski for drugging and sodomizing a 12 year old, it'll probably forgive Gibson for this too. Well, except for the fact that Gibson thinks that the Jew-run Hollywood is ruining everything. She also makes the apt observation that in order to enjoy art we often have to divorce the art from the artist (Ezra Pound, anyone?).

Marc Lamont Hill at BlackProf argues that Gibson's apology(the first one, that didn't specifically apologize for the anti-semitic nature of the remarks) should not be accepted:

Far too often, public apologies are perfunctory gestures that have more to do
with saving face than legitimate growth. For Black people, the politics of
apologies is particularly dangerous, as mea culpas are often used to end public
discussion about complex and consistent problems. For example, what good is the
Senate’s 2005 resolution to apologize for lynching if the modern day prison
industrial complex is replicating the conditions of the very slave industry that
enabled Black people to hang from trees? After such apologies are offered and
accepted without concrete concessions (such as reparations), further public
conversation is considered excessive, and persistent activists are conveniently
tagged as race card players and pain pimps . To be sure, public apologies can
yield enormous symbolic and material value. It is critical, however, that we not
fetishize repentant words and ignore the deeper complexities, contexts, and
contradictions that informed the initial misstep.

David Schraub has this rejoinder:

Ultimately, I feel like we should hold public figures (and especially government
officials)to higher standards than Joe-average-citizen on this respect. And,
perhaps more on point to the issues of past racial injustice, when we're dealing
with corrections of policy rather than of mindset, it is perfectly justifiable
(and wise) to demand remedy for the ailment, and not merely an apology. As
Critical Race Theorist Taunya Lovell Banks wrote in response to the Trent
Lott/Strom Thurmond affair, "focus on...remarks, rather than on...opposition to
civil rights for black Americans, probably cause[s] many white Americans to be
reluctant to discuss race, for fear of similar misstatements" [Exploring White
Resistance to Racial Reconciliation in the United States, 55 RUTGERS L. REV.
903, 948 (2003)]. A two-tiered approach which differentiates between
person-on-person racism and policy- or structurally-supported racism would help
mediate this conflict (though I doubt it would eliminate it entirely).

Both Dr. Hill and David make compelling points. The rhetoric and symbolism of apology are important--but not to be overstated. However, that is not to say Take everything with a grain of salt, but don't deny the truly contrite or well-meaning the opportunity to meaningfully engage race issues and learn to talk about such things "better." I don't think Dr. Hill and David are really making diametrically opposed arguments however. Dr. Hill's primary message appears to be "focus on what a person does, not merely what he says." And by invoking Lovell Banks, David is sort of doing the same--the focus on remarks and rhetoric distracts from the more important project of fighting against structural racism. The two-tiered system David suggests sounds sensible to me.

More recently, I've become more pragmatic and praxis-oriented in my approach to issues of racism. This is not to say I've wholly abandoned my deconstructionist, post-colonialist roots. I am one of those people you can often accuse of "reading too much" into something. After all, even well meaning, well-educated people say awfully stupid things all the time. But sometimes, you don't even have to "read into" anything. The Mel Gibson fracas is blunt and obvious to those who think that anti-Semitism doesn't exist anymore (do hate crimes research and you'll find it everywhere).

But while I'm more interested in structural, institutional racism (workplace organizational issues, how federalism issues reproduce gender and racial disparities), I can't avoid the human component, which necessarily involves rhetoric and meaning. I may read a case on employment discrimination and explore how the promotion-and-tenure system operated to exclude the consideration of a minority employee, but I always run into the human element--namely, some bad supervisor, some insensitive remark, some wholly subjective and stereotyped performance review. Language, so rich in human emotion and subjectivity, with such meaning and force, really does matter. But that doesn't mean I think it's as important as the law. In fact, the law protects language more than it prevents racism--except in the workplace. I tend to agree with this, whereas Eugene Volokh does not. But language is strange because it can operate as both injury and remedy. The response to speech is more speech, or so they say, but in the case of a hostile work environment, it's more speech on the part of the original offender. Send him or her to sensitivity training and make him or her apologize. But sometimes, apologies aren't enough.

The fact that racial incidents occurred at the workplace or that racial stereotypes had any part in employee assessment should be a mandate for the organization to reexamine its structural inequalities. I think rhetoric should not distract us from the real transformative projects at hand, but should serve to illuminate those areas where the law fails to protect the disadvantaged. If we're still talking about it, something is still wrong. If it bothers us so much that someone, "in this day and age" can make such remarks, that means such remarks still have great force and stigmatizing significance. If we as a society were "beyond" thinking of Jews this way or Blacks that way, such remarks would appear highly aberrant but less significant. Nowadays, you can say "Sambo" or maybe even "Coon" and not everyone will get the racial significance of those monikers. Not the same with "nigger" or "kike" or other hateful terms though--as certain epithets (thankfully) lose their racist significance and rhetorical force, they are replaced by others. If some stereotypes fade, others come to the fore.

Think of structural semiotic theory with signs and signifiers with referentials. Words are signs, signifying certain meanings--and you can think of this as arbitrary, or you can think of words as having a referential in the real world. Sometimes, things are truly arbitrary--I don't know why some words signify masculine and others feminine for example. But with racist or anti-Semitic epithets, they signify so much that is tied to a real world stereotype, referring to an entire history of anti-Jewish or anti-Black attitudes and laws that systematically discriminated and criminalized both. Sometimes, words matter a lot because they show more than just one type of meaning or one contextual meaning--sometimes, the meaning is much larger than the few letters in the word, just because the history behind the word is that much darker and oppressive.

The significance of apologies is no less important. While not a cure for structural, pervasive ills, they are a step in the right direction. Apologies carry powerful meaning, which is probably why we demand that Congress or the President “apologize” for the mistakes of the past (Internment, Tuskegee, segregation). We also demand reparations. Sometimes, apologia is empty in practical change (think how long it took to implement Brown) but huge in cultural significance. But perhaps we should think beyond language, and look to what language can do to inspire action and structural change. That’s another two-tiered approach.


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