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A guide to fake public apologies

See if this sounds familiar to you:

A public figure says something idiotic. He (or less often, she) will suggest that, say, the Prime Minister’s father died of shame at his daughter’s leadership, or that women shouldn’t breastfeed in public, or that marriage equality is the same thing as legalised bestiality and/or paedophilia, or that rape jokes are perfectly hilarious all the time, or that women who walk in their own city at night without a chaperone are basically asking to be attacked or that the labor party are basically like the Nazis. They might say it publicly, or they might be recorded saying it "off the record". Either way, there’s a public outrage at this person’s views, and said public figure will make a public response.

Every so often it’ll be a legitimate apology: "I’m sorry, I said something stupid, I’m ashamed. I was wrong."

More often it will take the form of the non-apology, followed by an attention-deflecting rhetorical smokescreen. It happens all the time, and I for one think that we need to start calling bullshit on it.

First up, the non-apology, which is normally couched in terms of “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by my statement”. Not that they’re sorry for what they said, you understand, but that your precious fee-fees were hurt. Because y’know, they can’t be expected to know what your triggers are but they’re very, very sorry that you were forced to criticise them. You’re forgiven for being so gosh-darn sensitive. And not that it’s if anyone was offended – maybe nobody was, we just don’t know because even finding out would imply some sort of acknowledgement. As apologies go, it’s one step up from “I’m deeply and genuinely sorry I was caught.”

The official non-apology has become standard operating procedure for most of these sorts of things, but increasingly often it’s paired up with its best pal: the Righteous and Pained Appeal to Sanity.

This normally takes the form of evocation of the notion of Free Speech, as though the speaker isn’t a privileged media personality who happened to spout something ill-considered off the top of their idiot head but is an oppressed truth-speaker, a beleaguered Cassandra having their lone voice drowned in the howls of the unruly and disrespectful mob. “I have the right to my opinion,” they declare, often adding that they respect dissenting opinions in some non-specific way (ways which never seems to extend to, y’know, allowing those dissenting opinions to be expressed in their column, on their radio show or during their morning television program, as it happens), and that this ultimately comes down to a gentlemanly disagreement about a matter of opinion, and therefore anyone who challenges whether what they’re saying is true is basically a fascist. You think something’s foolish, or even an outright lie? WHY YOU HATE FREEDOM SO MUCH?

It sidesteps criticism neatly, which is maddening because the claim is both irrelevant and false. It’s irrelevant because no-one is arguing that idiots don’t have the right to spout their idiot opinions – they’re disagreeing with the content of said opinions. And it’s false because no, you don’t actually have a right to your opinion – at least, not in any meaningful way – and to pretend otherwise is a pernicious trick to sidestep having to defend your position.

For starters – and I hope you’re sitting down – you flat out don’t have freedom of speech in Australia. There’s nothing in the Constitution about it and most of the case law surrounding it has been very specifically in the area of defamation* . Also, you already know that there are conditions on the sort of things you can say in the public sphere: there are laws surrounding hate speech, racial vilification, discriminatory language, incitement and so on. You can and will be charged for breaching these laws, so any appeal to a “right to free speech” from an Australian living in Australia is pretty much imaginary.

The less specific version of this, the “right to an opinion”, is even more insidious, because the reasoning works like this:

1. I have my opinion, which is different to yours

2. You have your opinion, which is different to mine

3. They each cancel out, we shake hands and go on our merry way

…which is fine if the subject at hand is whether Future of the Left is the best live band on the planet or if that shirt suits you, but absolutely not if the question is, say, whether global warming is real. Because the reality of global warming is not a question of opinion but of objective fact, and has consequences beyond whether you look nice or that you really should have been at the Annandale when FOTL played in 2011 (and you do, and you should have, but that’s neither here nor there).

There’s a dangerous notion that statements of supposed fact and statements of taste are equal, and more specifically there is a hidden assumption that everyone has the right to claim that something is the former while having their statement protected as if it were the latter (which is laid out beautifully by philosopher and educator Patrick Stokes here, incidentally).

But I’ll go further: every time you hear “I have a right to my opinion”, it is a dead giveaway that the person who is making the claim knows that they’re at the very least talking rubbish, if not actively lying. You never see epidemiologists from the CSIRO getting defensive about claims that there are signs of a seasonal flu epidemic, then declaring they have a right to their opinion; question them about it and they’ll reel off the evidence that led them to that conclusion. NASA don’t get sniffy that you’re not respecting their freedom of speech when questioned about what’s happening with the Curiosity rover on Mars: they go straight to the data. It’s only people like anti-vaccination campaigner Meryl Dorey or evolution-hatin’ organisations like the Discovery Institute that have to go for rhetorical tricks like this because reality stubbornly keeps saying the opposite.

When people are saying things that they know they can’t defend – because their claim is made up, because they know their argument is illogical, because it’s an asinine statement – they turn to sniffy claims of being oppressed. People with the facts on their sides don’t need it, because reality has the charming advantage of being real. At worst, they’re deliberately lying to you; at best, they’re an idiot.

In my opinion, of course.

*A reflection on our timid obedience, or is it that Australians have traditionally been pretty grown up about the use and policing of free expression and therefore not had to have big flashy legal battles over it? You be the judge! That being said, our defamation laws are desperately in need of a polish, but that’s a different rant

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