Apology #3: Rahm Emanuel apologizes for his “fucking retarded” comment.

17 06 2010

Mid last year, in a private strategy meeting, the sometimes foul-mouthed and often controversial Obama Administration’s Chief of Staff at the White House, Rahm Emanuel , used the phrase “fucking retarded” about a group of liberals.

The event was referred to in the US press in the inimical words “ [expletive] retarded”. It was first reported in the Wall Street Journal and followed by a predictable uproar of outrage primarily among advocates of Disabilities groups. Then Emanuel apologized in private to Tim Shriver,  Special Olympics Chief Executive, who had written a complaint to the Chief of Staff on the day it happened.  Shriver reported the fact of the apology and the fact of his acceptance of it. A week later,  Emanuel met with a group of Disabilities advocates, who emerged impressed by the Chief of Staff’s apparent sincerity.

So let’s  have a  look at Emanuel’s apology. I was unable to find a verbatim text, probably because it occurred in a private conversation. The White House subsequently announced that the apology was accepted, adding “The White House remains committed to addressing the concerns and needs of Americans living with disabilities and recognizes that derogatory remarks demean us all.”

Here again is my 5-point apology test.

“Sorry for how I spoke to you in front of the boss yesterday (naming behaviour). I was totally out of line (accepting responsibility). It had been a very hard day (explaining) but it shouldn’t have happened (not justifying). Please accept my apology (asking forgiveness) and if there’s anything I can do to make up for it, please say so” (offering to make amends).

So how does Emanuel’s apology rate?

  1. Is the behaviour being apologized for named?

Assesssment:  It would seem, from the response of those present, that the behaviour – speaking offensively about people living with mental disability – was named and agreed.

Not so the more public White House Press statement, following Emanuel’s private apology. “The White House (so depersonalized that no one is standing up to be counted) remains committed (“remains” is a clever addition – it suggests that their good attitude pre-existed the reprimand)to addressing the concerns and needs of Americans living with disabilities (very PC: ” [Americans] living with disabilities” deliberately puts their humanity first, before their disability, and uses language that the people themselves favour) and recognizes that derogatory remarks demean us all (being so broad and all-encompassing at the same time dilutes  and deligitimizes the specific pain involved).

2. Is responsibility accepted?

Assessment: From reports, it would seem that yes, responsibility was accepted.

Peter Berns, one of those present at the meeting where the apology was given, was reported to have said: “Emanuel seemed genuinely surprised by the outrage he generated and told the advocates that he planned to discuss the situation with his three children so that they could learn from his mistakes… My sense was that this had opened up his eyes in a way that was significant and that the reaction has really touched him… He expressed his apologies and regrets. It struck me as very sincere and heartfelt on his part. I did not at all have the impression that he was going through the paces.”

Of course, you can take the cynical view and figure that the Disabilities lobby group saw this as an apportunity to get nationwide sympathetic publicity. Berg admitted the meeting with Emanuel gave the group a chance  “to establish a personal relationship that we didn’t have before”.

As follow-up, advocates said they expected a positive reception at the White House regarding upcoming proposed legislation. According to “Rosa’s law”, references to “mental retardation” would be replaced with the term “intellectual disability” throughout federal law.

3. Is the account more than a justification?

Assessment:  Yes. It would seem Emanuel pleaded ignorance of the power of his derogatory words.  For one with a reputation for using offensivce language, this lacks some credibility. However,  it is inherent in apologies that they require  face-humbling,  and whilesoever we have difficulty distinguishing the act from the pretense, the latter may be enough.

4. Is forgiveness sought?

Assessment:  Yes. He seems to have been regretful of causing offense and hurt, not just of having been caught out.

5. Are amends being offered?

Assessment: Yes. We can take it as highly unlikely that in future, in public at least, Emanuel will be quite so flippant in his terms of abuse. He had another meeting with self-advocates and disabilities group representatives, who were encouraged to tell their own narratives of personal hurt in the face of discrimination. One of them considered the meeting “a historic moment”, wondering whether “a group of self-advocates has ever ventured into the inner sanctum of the White House”.

Emanuel promised his support to end the use of the R-word, beginning by taking  the Special Olympics pledge which reads: “I pledge and support the elimination of the derogatory use of the R-word from everyday speech and promote the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities.” Emanuel added, “this is so important, and I’m glad to support it.”

Of course, it’s always possible that Obama spoke sternly and privately with Emanuel and told him to “fix it”, not wanting another scandal or torrent of hostility from an increasingly disenchanted citizenry. We can’t really know this. All we can do is calculate the attempt to address the face issues entailed in an apology. I’ve scored him 4.5 (I’ve docked 0.5 for the White House statement) out of a possible 5,

Have I been fair?  Too generous perhaps? Too naive? Tell me what you think!

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4 responses

18 06 2010
Gary Birch

I like your analysis. By contrast, it would be good to conduct a similar analysis on some of our Australian politicians (e.g. Rudd & Abbot).

18 06 2010
rw

Yeah, I thought of doing an Apology analysis on the “sorry” said in parliament, when Rudd first took over.
But Abbot – when did he ever apologize for anything?!

19 06 2010
kelly

Sounds fair to me, and I’m very pleased that at last someone has passed the 5-point apology test.

19 06 2010
ruthwajnryb

Kel, well, yeah, the fact that he did well in the apology actually has little bearing on sincerity. Increasingly I am coming to see that it’s a matter of going through the motions, and doing this well; and not so much of sincerity or empathy. Seems obvious now, but it wasn’t so obvious, to me anyway, before I started probing.




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