Here's a can't-miss prediction for 2014: Some time this year, a media figure will say something offensive about someone who does not share their political ideology. There will be a chorus of feigned outrage. Apologies will be demanded, then grudgingly offered. Those insincerely expressing their displeasure at the original statement will criticize the apology for its insufficient sincerity.
In fact, this little routine will happen multiple times this year (and next year, and the year after that). It will happen with both media figures and politicians. That's just how we do it in America. There's so much umbrage taken in politics that it practically constitutes its own industry.
Last week we saw one more of these cases, but it was different from most, in that the eventual apology not only contained what an actual apology should, it was obviously earnest as well. That's so rare because the insult-apology morality play, in politics at least, is always enacted against a background of partisan contestation that discourages everyone from acting honestly.
To summarize briefly, MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry had a segment on her show with a roundtable of comedians in which she put up photos and asked them to come up with amusing captions. One photo was the Romney family Christmas card, with Mitt and Ann posing amongst their hundreds of grandchildren, including a new addition to the brood, an African-American baby adopted not long ago by one of the Romney sons. One of the comedians on the panel sang, "One of these things is not like the other…" and Harris-Perry joked that it would amusing if one day the child grew up to marry Kanye West and Kim Kardashian's baby, so Kanye and Mitt could be in-laws.
As far as these kinds of sins go, the brief exchange was pretty mild. It wasn't as if Harris-Perry or her guest said something particularly cruel about the child; the joke was in the anomaly of a black child in the midst of a family as famously white as the Romneys (dressed on the card in matching pastel-and-khaki outfits, no less). That doesn't mean it wasn't problematic, just that we should be able to distinguish between the ill-considered quip and the truly hateful remark.
That broader context is something the rest of us can consider, but Harris-Perry chose not address it when she offered an on-air apology profoundly different from those we usually hear. She didn't say "I apologize if someone was offended," as people so often do (which actually means, "I get that you were offended, but I don't think you should have been"). She didn't try to minimize it; if anything, she might have made the offending segment sound more offensive than it was. She said it was wrong and took responsibility for it. And most importantly, she said this: "I am genuinely appreciative of everyone who offered serious criticisms of last Sunday's program, and I am reminded that our fiercest critics can sometimes be our best teachers."
There were many liberals on social media who expressed the opinion that Harris-Perry shouldn't have apologized, mainly because it would only deliver succor to the enemies of liberalism, who are a dastardly bunch. But Harris-Perry's words and evident sincerity made it clear that the apology wasn't about conservatives, it was about her. She chose to do the right thing, to commit a morally righteous act even if people she doesn't like would enjoy it.
In other words, she removed herself from the political calculation that asks of everything, "Which side is this good for?" That isn't easy for someone involved in politics to do, because so many forces push you to see every controversy primarily from that perspective. Had Harris-Perry been focused on not giving her critics any satisfaction, or simply keeping up the fight, she might have given one of those familiar non-apology apologies. She might have said: Listen, imagining Mitt and Kanye at Thanksgiving together isn't exactly like, say, that time during the Clinton presidency when John McCain asked the crowd at a Republican fundraiser, "Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because Janet Reno is her father." That was truly despicable; what I did was a misdemeanor at best.
But she didn't say those things; instead, she acted the way a good person would, the way most of us hope we'd act in an analogous situation in our own lives. She overcame the natural instinct to be defensive that we all share and to say that our good intentions should absolve us of blame. It's ironic that we don't expect that of those in public life, even though in general, the light of attention tends to encourage people to show their best selves. A slew of psychological studies have shown that when we know others are watching us, we're more likely to act cooperatively, help people in need, and even to pick up after ourselves. When we're in public we start seeing ourselves through others' eyes and want to project an admirable persona. That's why it's sometimes said that character is what you do when no one's watching.
For politicians and media figures, someone is always watching, and there's a legion of people waiting to expose and punish you for the things you say. When you're being taken to task by people who most assuredly do not have your best interests at heart, it's awfully hard to ask yourself honestly whether, just this once, they might have a point.
As I've often said in comparing ordinary people to presidential candidates, if somebody followed you around recording everything you said for a year—heck, even for a day—there would undoubtedly be some things that passed your lips that would make somebody angry. Now that we have social media, it isn't necessary to have your own TV show in order to risk a rain of criticism for the ugliness of your momentary thoughts. We all have to be accountable for what we say, but we can pass or fail the test that comes after you say something you shouldn't have.
The web is full of "The Worst Apologies of 2013" lists (Paula Deen figures heavily), but to my mind, the best one came from Grist's David Roberts, who not only apologized for something insulting he said about someone on Twitter, but wrote a long and thoughtful post unpacking the whole episode. "As for the 'political correctness police,' well, I'm happy they got me," he wrote. "That kind of social censure reinforces norms that badly need reinforcement in social media … If I'm briefly being made an example of, that's as it should be—learn from the example!"
Learning from episodes like this one can be the hardest part, since the prevailing question is usually "Who won?" But maybe next time the umbrage machine fires up, we can ask what was revealed about everyone's character, not just in what they initially said, but in how they responded to their critics.