Wednesday, 17 June 2009

how to say sorry, and mean it

i watch the late show (with david letterman) quite regularly. i wouldn't say i'm a fan exactly, because a lot of the stuff he does just pisses me off. as with many left-wing comedians, he'll stay away from racist jokes, but is quite happy with the sexist ones. so we have to hear gems like "we've landed a man on a the moon, but haven't managed to land a man on susan boyle" (the fact that he got a loud boo from his audience on that one was a good sign!).

nonetheless, despite the fact that there is plenty not to like, he also pulls off some great stuff. the recent interview with tom hanks was brilliant, and the ones with denzel washington & russell crow were also pretty good. seeing him take on bill o'reilly, john mccain etc is not just entertaining, but he gets across some really good points. the guy can be pretty decent when he wants to be.

so it turns out that i was watching when he made the jokes about sarah palin and her daughters. and didn't think too much of it at the time, because i'm pretty much used to him spewing out this kind of crap all the time (as with susan boyle joke above). terrible how listening to this kind of stuff regularly makes you immune to it.

however, when ms palin was outraged at those jokes, i'd have to say that my sympathies were generally with her. i don't believe that the cost of becoming a public or political figure is that women should have to accept misogynistic jokes about themselves. and even though she has put her children in the public spotlight for her own political gain, i don't believe misogynistic jokes about those daughters are ok either. i'm not saying that no jokes can be made about them at all, and i'd have no problem with any jokes about bristol palin and abstinence-only education, for example. or jokes on any other policy positions or public statements made by ms palin or her family.

in this case, i thought an apology was warranted and i saw the first one that was forthcoming from mr letterman. it was along the lines of (and i paraphrase) "yes, i made a tasteless joke, i do that all the time, but these jokes were not about raping an underage girl, i would never joke about that". which was really not much of an apology. in fact it wasn't so much an apology as a personal statement. and he made sure that he repeated the offending jokes, just to rub it in. in other words, a total waste of time.

but now it seems that he has made a full apology, and it goes like this:

All right, here - I've been thinking about this situation with Governor Palin and her family now for about a week - it was a week ago tonight, and maybe you know about it, maybe you don't know about it. But there was a joke that I told, and I thought I was telling it about the older daughter being at Yankee Stadium. And it was kind of a coarse joke. There's no getting around it, but I never thought it was anybody other than the older daughter, and before the show, I checked to make sure in fact that she is of legal age, 18. Yeah. But the joke really, in and of itself, can't be defended.

The next day, people are outraged. They're angry at me because they said, 'How could you make a lousy joke like that about the 14-year-old girl who was at the ball game?' And I had, honestly, no idea that the 14-year-old girl, I had no idea that anybody was at the ball game except the Governor and I was told at the time she was there with Rudy Giuliani...And I really should have made the joke about Rudy.... [audience applauds] But I didn't, and now people are getting angry and they're saying, 'Well, how can you say something like that about a 14-year-old girl, and does that make you feel good to make those horrible jokes about a kid who's completely innocent, minding her own business,' and, turns out, she was at the ball game. I had no idea she was there. So she's now at the ball game and people think that I made the joke about her.

And, but still, I'm wondering, 'Well, what can I do to help people understand that I would never make a joke like this?' I've never made jokes like this as long as we've been on the air, 30 long years, and you can't really be doing jokes like that. And I understand, of course, why people are upset. I would be upset myself.

And then I was watching the Jim Lehrer 'Newshour' - this commentator, the columnist Mark Shields, was talking about how I had made this indefensible joke about the 14-year-old girl, and I thought, 'Oh, boy, now I'm beginning to understand what the problem is here. It's the perception rather than the intent.' It doesn't make any difference what my intent was, it's the perception.

And, as they say about jokes, if you have to explain the joke, it's not a very good joke. And I'm certainly - [audience applause] - thank you. Well, my responsibility - I take full blame for that. I told a bad joke. I told a joke that was beyond flawed, and my intent is completely meaningless compared to the perception. And since it was a joke I told, I feel that I need to do the right thing here and apologize for having told that joke. It's not your fault that it was misunderstood, it's my fault. That it was misunderstood. [audience applauds] Thank you.

So I would like to apologize, especially to the two daughters involved, Bristol and Willow, and also to the Governor and her family and everybody else who was outraged by the joke. I'm sorry about it and I'll try to do better in the future. Thank you very much. [audience applause]

now that is a proper apology. it apologises for the jokes themselves, not for the offence caused (I need to do the right thing here and apologize for having told that joke). it makes no excuses about the jokes (But the joke really, in and of itself, can't be defended). it recognises that it is not the intent of the speaker but rather the perception of the audience that is important; and doesn't use the excuse "but i didn't intend to cause offence", thereby implying it's the listener's fault for being offended (It doesn't make any difference what my intent was, it's the perception). it recognises the hurt caused (And I understand, of course, why people are upset. I would be upset myself). he commits to improving his behaviour (I'll try to do better in the future). and he doesn't repeat the offending jokes (duh, how was that ever a good idea?).

yup, if i ever have to make a public (or even private) apology, i know i can learn a lot from this one.

ms palin has apparently accepted the apology. but i have no doubt that her supporters will continue to agitate against mr letterman, and try to get him off the air. there is an obviously strong partisan reason for doing that. in this case, and given the apology above, i'd say they'd be wrong to take it further.

as for me, i'm not sure that i'll like mr letterman any better than i did before. but i certainly respect him for this apology, and i hope for better things from him in the future.


Hugh said...

David Letterman is left wing?

stargazer said...

do you think he isn't?

Hugh said...

I'm not exactly familiar with his work, but the stuff I have seen never touched on the redistribution of wealth, worker's rights or any of that stuff.

I'm sure he supports Democratic candidates, but that's not left wing in my book.

katy said...

"I'm sure he supports Democratic candidates, but that's not left wing in my book."

But it does seem to be within the context of US media where CNN=left and Fox=right.

A Nonny Moose said...

I remember during the election he talked about being friends with McCain, but he was pissed that he skipped the show to "go back to Washington to negotiate the recession rescue package" (when McCain had nothing to do with it at all).

He is pretty vicious all round on Republican policy.

stargazer said...

that was quite funny. the problem wasn't that mccain had gone back to washington (which was the excuse he'd given to mr letterman), but that he'd been doing an interview with another network in new york at the time. it was the lie that was the issue, and mr letterman milked it for at least a couple of weeks.

AWicken said...

I did watch his show for several year - still do occasionally - and frankly I don't know his politics at all.

Although he uses political issues for material, I get the impression that the actual angles reflect the social attitudes of the time. ISTR he was quite gung ho and pro-Bush (or at least ripped as much out of Kerry etc as he did Bush) for the first few years, then headed mostly to the antiBush side in the last few years.

I have no idea as to whether that reflects his politics, or if it's just a canny entertainer playing to the audience.

backin15 said...

stargazer, I like your analysis of why this is a good, full and unqualified apology. I hate it when apologies are qualified, and his first was. This second apology simply and clearly explains that he regrets what he said, not what anyone else thought.