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Guest Commentary: “Non-Apologies” in Holyoke

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

When Holyoke City Councilors Daniel Bresnahan and Todd McGee found themselves the subject of an intense media storm breaking on Facebook and Twitter, prompting coverage in the Springfield Newspapers and finally becoming a national news story, predictable apologies were not long forthcoming (see Maureen Turner’s Valley Advocate report, “Boys on Tape,” October 10, 2013). What was sadly predictable about the Councilors’ apologies was their “non-apology” nature.

Humorist Bruce McCall in the April 22, 2001 edition of the New York Times (“The Perfect Non-Apology Apology”) defined the “non-apology apology” as a ploy by which, “with sufficiently artful double talk, you can get what you want by seeming to express regret while actually accepting no blame.” The non-apologies of Bresnahan and McGee were classic examples of shifting blame to the blogger who had exposed the sexist commentary, while claiming the remarks were “misrepresented” and “taken out of context.”

The context, however, was Bresnahan’s sexual objectification of his colleagues and McGee’s failing to register objection. Failing to find fault with his own remarks, Bresnahan’s non-apology was an apology in a different sense. It was a defense of his remarks as “joking around” that ought neither to be found offensive nor to be “construed” as deliberately demeaning of women. To reduce this to “joking around” is a reiteration of the defense, “boys will be boys.”

It suggests that such “jokes” are jokes that we should expect from men, find acceptable in men, and assume to be within the very natures of men. In classic “non-apology” fashion, this defense of such remarks suggests that objectification of women is intrinsic to men as men, rather than behavior that merits a correction plan. When one apologizes, one accepts responsibility for what one has done and the necessity to make amends. For McGee, however, it is an “if-then” statement.

McGee’s “non-apology” to Councilor Lisi was conditional: “if I had offended her.” This is another rhetorical shifting of blame, and an evasion of personal responsibility. What it suggests is that he regrets his remarks far less than he regrets the way they were taken, and that he wishes he had found a way of registering approval of Mr. Bresnahan’s “demeaning and derogatory” remarks that would not be perceived as such. What these men have offered are not apologies, but excuses.

It is a shame that, when faced with appropriate public opprobrium for such sexist behavior within a public forum, these men have responded with attacks on the person exposing it, a transfer of blame to those who take issue with it, and efforts to paint it as somehow misconstrued and a mere jest between friends. This does not demonstrate regret. What it instead demonstrates is that these men find no fault in it, seem to believe that others should view it as behavior we should expect of men, and find themselves offended with how it was exposed and received. It speaks volumes as to how female colleagues and petitioners may be viewed or heard by them.•

Owen Broadhurst was the Green-Rainbow Party’s 2006 candidate for Massachusetts House of Representatives in the 3rd Hampden District.

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