Wednesday, September 8, 2010

When Sorry Isn't Enough

"Suck on that faggots"
Stephanie Rice, Twitter

Rice has apologised for writing the above, announced she is not homophobic and fellow swimmer Matthew Mitcham has also come out backing her on the 'not homophobic' claim. This little incident is not only an interesting study in technology and the dissolution of the public/private domains, but also in the nature of public apologies and homophobia.
Apologies in our personal lives are common place, we all know the expectations; you acknowledge you have hurt someone else, take responsibility for it and then attempt to make amends. The person you apologise to then has the option to accept, and of course more often than not in the context of close-knit social bonds they do. However this is not the script used in Rices case. It seems to me that in fact this is an apology put on its head, as many apologies are when done by public figures.
Look at the dynamic; concern was raised about a homophobic comment; Rice responds by making it all about her. She is 'not homophobic', she mentions how tough it has been for her, and of course she cries. A classic PR exercise, we now feel sorry for her, see her more as a person, subtly shift our psychological disposition towards her and realise she did not really mean to hurt anyone any way. That is fine, if you are a child.
We expect less of children when it comes to saying sorry. Sometimes we even accept proxy apologies through parents if the child is too young to have enough moral sense. But from adults we expect the acknoweldgment, the taking responsibility, the making reparations script. This is for good reason- adults are autonomous moral agents and should be treated as such. That entails good will and trust combined with accountability and responsibility. Rice has turned the gaze of concern from the homophobic comment, to herself- the centre of attention who has had a rough time and now needs some empathy and protecting. Matthew does a fine show of it. Genuine apology? I would expect Rice to take responsibility as an adult for her actions and then make some reparations, given Rice did not offend a particular person but a class I suggest the best way to regain goodwill rather than playing the passive child is for Rice to make a donation to a community group and show she has some insight into her behaviour and a willingness to make amends.
But in the end does it add up that she isn't homophobic and does it even matter? It is possible to say racist, sexist, and homophobic things and not 'be' those things. But the consequences are the same. I cannot know the state of Rices character but that is a separate issue to making public statements that are derogatory. If I accept her gay friend matthews' account of things then Rice becomes someone who isn't homophobic but just says homophobic things on occasion. An interesting mental exercise, but that does not change the impact or change the social context for people of diverse sexualities who bear the brunt of homophobia.
So despite the PR attempt at character resurrection I would have been more convinced of her character if she just went into the press conference and said "suck on that faggots".

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