This has been a really difficult week in my personal life, and as such, I haven’t had the time to really be following the ever-multiplying posts on the subject of the incredibly racist imagery contained in Amanda Marcotte’s book. Holly and many others have addressed the core issue far better than I ever could, and all I can say is: what she said.
It seems a breaking point has been reached, and apologies have been issued by both Amanda and her publisher. I’m trying to avoid, as much as possible, talking about the specifics of the question at hand, and focus on something related that has been on my mind in a number of contexts: the meaning of an apology. I wrote a few months ago about forgiveness, and noted at the time that it has been extremely important for me not to base my ability to forgive another person on whether or not that other person requests my forgiveness. I can’t make my healing contingent on the actions of another – I need to heal too badly, I can’t wait until that person is ready to understand, and I sure as hell have no ability to make them understand.
The flip side of that is what it means to apologize. For me, it has been absolutely vital to recognize that my apologies have to fully respect that I have hurt the other party. I have damaged her. I have left her less than whole, less than she was before my actions, and my apologies may not bring her back to wholeness. She may not accept them at all, or she may accept them and choose nonetheless to say that she can’t trust me again, and I have to appreciate that this is her healing. My harmful actions were human actions. They were actions based on my scars and imperfections and limitations and non-wholeness. Apologizing is not, can never be, about excusing the actions for those reasons, whether they’re universal or specific.
When I become seriously, legitimately conscious of the ways I’m harming another person, it causes me pain. That, to me, is basic empathy. That’s humanity. If I’m able to continue hurting someone, it’s almost inevitably because of ignorance, either honest or willful. Defensiveness, for the most part, is willful ignorance, willful refusal to step outside my self. It’s easier that way for a time, but when I’m at a point of apologizing – for real apologizing – it’s because I seriously cannot be that way anymore, for my own sake. It’s disjointed, it’s out of line, it’s cognitively dissonant, and I can’t tolerate the tune in my head anymore. So I am apologizing as part of saying “I can’t be this way anymore, I need to be, and I will be different. I want to be whole, and I want you to find your way to whole again as well”. Guilt, shame, defensiveness, deflecting, citing the counterpoints of “good” I’ve done, explaining away – traps. Illusions. Excuses to not change, excuses to stay exactly the way I am, decisions to be okay with my own stagnation. Contributions, ultimately, to my own misery.
So in that way, apologizing is all about me. Again, as I said in that forgiveness post, my apology can’t fully heal the other. I don’t have that power. There’s too much other stuff there, and I’m just another person. That’s why it has to be done without expectation, without assumption, without need for reciprocation, without need for acceptance, in order for it to be “sincere”, in order for it to matter. Just as I need to heal from the actions of others too badly to await their apology, I need to heal from my own past actions too badly to require the granting of forgiveness from some human source. I’ve said this before, but it always bears repeating: as soon as my apology is issued with an expectation of a return, with a requirement that something will be granted before I can become capable of change, then all I have done by issuing this apology is returned the burden to the arms of the person I originally hurt.
Whenever I think about forgiveness and the destructiveness of too much guilt/the wrong kind of apologizing, I keep coming back to the Buffy episode “The Wish” (before the alternate universe part of it). Willow, having been caught cheating on Oz with Xander, is textbook on “All About Me (In All the Wrong Ways)” apologies, and Oz calls her on it, in that way that only Oz can accomplish:
I’m sorry you’re having a hard time with this. But I told you what I need. So I can’t help feeling that the reason you want to talk is so you can feel better about yourself.
And that’s not my problem
I’m really bothered by the idea that we should offer a “safe space” in which to allow someone to apologize. Granted, this whole blogosphere thing (hell, this whole mass media communication thing in general) means that suddenly, apologies are not just between the original harmer and one, easily identifiable harmee. Any number of other parties come into play to judge the sincerity of the apology or the appropriateness of the reaction among those who choose to accept or not accept the apology. If I’m apologizing, however, and I mean it, none of that can matter. I have to want to apologize for it’s own sake – I have to want to be different just because I do, not because I figure it’s the best way to get me something. And that can never be easy. It should never be easy. It shouldn’t be safe. It should be change, and change is fucking scary. Change that lets other people change or not change, forgive or not forgive, move on or not move on, heal or not heal, as they see fit – change that requires absolutely nothing of the other – is inherently unsafe. It’s uncertain, and that makes it risky. You can’t predict the result, you just know you have to do it anyway, because the way it is just won’t do anymore.
I’m not trying to be self-congratulatory here, because dude, I fuck up all the time. I fuck up big. And sometimes, I fuck up because the kind of attitude I’m displaying in writing this post leads me to take myself far too damn seriously and to develop too much of an all-or-nothing attitude toward whatever the hell it is I’d rather not be doing anymore. While I write pretty abstractly, a lot of my thoughts are based on stuff I have recently fucked up or that I’m fucking up in my life right now, and I’m trying to convince myself as much as anybody else. And note, I’m not making any specific assessment on the sincerity of either of those apologies. The only way I want to tie this to that issue is to say that I’m frustrated by those who would consider themselves the universal arbiters on whether or not an apology should be accepted even if it is sincere, and what that acceptance should entail in terms of behaviour or further discussion.
I’ve spent a damn long time on this post, and I have another point to make about how this individual concept translates to the concept of racism and privilege, but I don’t know that I’m up for bringing the words right now.