Roland Martin's mea culpa: Hermeneutics of the self-erasing (non-)apology

Roland Martin has issued a mea culpa about remarks he made on Super Bowl Sunday which he acknowledges may have been construed as homophobic and which thus dismayed or distressed members of the public. GLAAD, in turn, has posted a counter-statement. (Read about it here.)

Posted late last night, Martin’s note is full of conciliatory language and it gives a run-down of the syndicated columnist and author’s bona fides as an outspoken critic of bullying and bigotry.

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Roland Martin's apology: Is it real or is a simulation?

Yet it contains a coded sentence which makes the whole thing more ambivalent than it sounds.

The phrase will be familiar to most readers, it’s a tried and media-tested self-erasing mea culpa that's become a standard in the biz.

In other words, it’s an apology that undoes itself as an apology, allowing the appellant to wriggle out of taking actual responsibility for his or her words and actions.

Here's the brief, yet so magical phrase: “I sincerely regret any offense my words have caused.”

It's a beautiful (though not in the poetic sense) phrase which undoes itself as an apology by casting Martin as an innocent man free of malice who sent an equally innocent, if admittedly salty remark, which was understood by some –  perhaps most –  people to be equally innocent in its intention and meaning.

Yet, some people were offended, Martin admits, but only because they misread his intentions.

The implications are clear.

  1. The offending party did not intend to defame or malign any individual or group. Martin is innocent of malice and prejudice. Martin says he realizes that (only) some people may have been offended by the statement, implying, of course, that (most?) other people weren't offended in the slightest.
  2. But Martin does apologize, he says he is sorry those (few) people were upset. “To those who construed my comment as being anti-gay or homophobic or advancing violence, I’m truly sorry,” Martin writes.

    He’s sorry, for sure. But he’s not really sorry: The word sorry here is not the acknowledgment of a fault or wrong behavior. It’s an expression of fellow-feeling Martin uses it in the same way you would if you were to say, “I’m sorry you lost your job.”

  3. The magic phrase erases responsibility. Martin feels for the injured party, but admits no culpability.

  4. So what kind of person would have been angered by Martin’s rap in the first place?  People who misread a newspaper columnist’s intentions. So, they’re dumb people? Crazy people?

    Or are they gay people who are so thin-skinned and over-sensitive, they are too easily upset. They can’t take a joke, they aren’t strong enough, not manly enough (perhaps they wear pink?) – which brings us back around to the initial controversy ...

I have no idea if Roland Martin has hate in his heart for gays or any other group of people. I also think the language of victimhood sometimes can twist public discourse and reduce conversation to never-ending cylces of emotive accusation and counter-accusation.

I just find the standard self-erasing non-apology apology to be crude, rude, destructive and most un-civil.

The willingness to ask for forgiveness from the other is one of the cornerstones of ethics and of a civil society. To utter self-contradictory nonsense in its stead undermine that hard-won civility.