2016 minus 38: if i caused offence…?

Posted: 24 November 2015 in 2016minus, internet, social media
Tags: , ,

Some years ago, I posted something online that I believed to be true. Told to me by someone I trusted, it turned out not only to be false, but maliciously so. I hadn’t lied or at least there was no intention to lie nor even mislead, but I’d at best – at best! – propogated an untruth.

It didn’t take long for the real situation, the truth, to come out, and I felt completely shitty. Not only had I abused the trust of people who relied upon me not to lie, I felt inherently shitty simply because I’d postd something that wasn’t true. While it didn’t immediately terminate the friendship I’d had with the person who told me, the event without doubt damaged it, and we were rarely in contact afterwards. Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time I spoke to him, and I’ve no idea what he’s up to now.

The only person who was offended by my posting, though, was the then editor of Comics International, Dez Skinn. I knew Dez slightly, from online conversations, but certainly not as well as I came to know him later on. And I was told by some people who did know him well that he was both surprised and genuinely offended by the information I’d posted. 

There was only one thing for it. As well as a public apology in the forum in which I’d posted, I called Dez and apologised to him. The wording I used was one I’ll regret to the ends of my days. After exchanging small talk, I said “I’m genuinely sorry if I caused offence…”

I didnt get any further before Dez interupted with “IF you caused offence? If…”

I took the point – I knew he was offended, so why the hell use such a mealy-mouthed combination of words?

Anyway, I apologised for causing offence, and for posting it in the first place, and Dez accepted both, with good grace.

We got on well over the next few years, to the extent that Comics International actually paid for the room hire for the second and third Hypotheticals panels in 2001 and 2002. (It always surprised people – though I don’t know why – that we had to pay for the room hire for the first few panels, until the con abolished room charging for panels.)

But here’s the thing: apologising for the offence caused isn’t enough, which is why I added the apology for the act as well; without that second part, it places the blame on the person who’s been offended, as if the original statement was fine and they’re just being oversensitive.

And we see that all the time. Livingstone tried, last week, before Corbyn got him to unreservedly apologise. His original semi-apology was to say he was sorry “if [Kevan Jones] was upset”.

It’s the same thing as saying “I owe you an apology” and then never delivering that apology. I appreciate that in these litigious days, an apology about something that’s caused measurable – and potential or actual financial – harm is problematic. But that’s not what I’m talking about. No, of course there’s no right not to be offended, and freedome of speech is never freedom of consequence arising from that speech, but it seems to many that apologising is [seen by equally many as] weakness, when I’d argue that it’s not. Don’t misunderstand me; I don’t think it’s necessarily strength to apologise, any more than it’s strong not to cheat in a sport.

Admitting you fucked up is just the right thing to do.

There’s a comedian I admire, and just as importantly, like. Very intelligent fella, very intelligent comedy. He’s one of those I’ve met via Mitch Benn only to discover that my liking of his comedy is at least as much matched by my liking for him personally. Always nice when that happens. He fucked up on Twitter a while back, before we’d actually met; he tweeted an urban myth about religious Jews that shocked, offended and genuinely angered me. And I wasn’t alone. Jewish comedians, non-Jewish comedians, lots of people leaped to correct him, some politely, some… less so.

Within a couple of hours, he’d deleted the tweet, said he’d been a gullible fool, publicly apologised and hashtagged it #iamanidiot.  I don’t know a single person who regarded the apology as anything other than genuine, or treated the accompanying embarrassment otherwise. Couple of months back, I did it again. Fucked up online, I mean. I’m not a huge fan of Peter Hitchens. About the only nice thing I can say about him and his views is that he’s clear as to what he believes and isn’t concerned in the least about telling you, or how it comes over. As my late grandmother would have said, “what’s on his lung is what’s on his tongue”. 
That said, I came across a quote he’d made and used it online during a discussion. Hitchens saw it and asked when he’d said it, as it didn’t represent his views at all. I went back to my source material and… yeah, I’d not realised that the site I’d used was a satirical news site. 

Ah…

So I deleted the tweet, apologised to him directly and in a public tweet. OK, so far, so… ok. What genuinely surprised me was Hitchens’ response. He genuinely couldn’t have been more understanding. “It happens”, was his general attitude, but he was very pleased at the apology and thanked me publicly for it, saying that misquotes and mistatributions online were common, while apologies were not.

I’m not suggesting that we should apologise more often for causing offence. In many cases – though not all by any means – those who proclaim offence are perfectly willing to offend others and then claim ‘freedom of speech!’ when their statements are protested. 

But, apologising for online fuckups, misattributions, untruths? Yeah, we should alldo that more often. How about we start with “every time an apology is owed” and move on from there?

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