• Roxanne Gay (L) and Mia Freedman (R). (Getty )
"You do not say sorry until you mean it", writes Helen Razer. "To say 'I am sorry if you were offended' is not an apology. It’s an accusation that the wounded person failed."
By
Helen Razer

14 Jun 2017 - 12:06 PM  UPDATED 14 Jun 2017 - 3:29 PM

Just between you, me and the very bored persons of our national intelligence agency who are paid to keep an eye on us both: I am a relatively rotten lady. The evidence, already collected by ASIO, is clear. I give slightly less than I can afford to my preferred charity each month, I floss my teeth less often than Khanh my angel-dentist recommends and, worst, I am often slow to apologise.

Part of my reluctance to apologise when I know I have done wrong is my arrogant reluctance to admit that I have done wrong. Another, more mature, obstacle to apology is the knowledge that I have done something wrong, but that I need time to totally work out how wrong that something was.

Say, for example, your name is Helen and you have made a joke by text to your friend about their mental ill health. This friend, a hilarious lady, often makes jokes about her own mental ill health and frequently encourages you to do the same; you’re close enough that the subject of clinical depression can be, even should be, approached lightly. But say your name is Helen and you know both that your friend is having a serious relapse and that your joke was, even on a good day, quite poor. Heck, it was cruel and, most criminally of all, not even that funny.  What your friend needed that day was encouragement to visit her therapist, and not, at all, some tedious crack.

Another, more mature, obstacle to apology is the knowledge that I have done something wrong, but that I need time to totally work out how wrong that something was.

What generally happens for me in such a situation is twofold. Before I get to the point where I genuinely acknowledge my error, I genuinely deny that I have erred. I tell myself, “you were only being funny! She’s so sensitive!” for a spell, before I get to the point where I can finally tell myself, “Of COURSE she’s sensitive, you lumbering ninny! She’s depressed! She’s your pal and you know that!”

I believe that I will always be so naturally arrogant that my first response is denial that I have done wrong. But, I believe also that I have the natural capacity to overcome my natural flaws. So, while I am still slow to apologise, I do, eventually, get there. I allow myself a day or two to indulge my natural arrogance, because I know my natural inclination to improve my relations with others will take over.

A quicker way of saying this is that I don’t apologise until I get to the place where I am ready to face my true obligation to apologise. Or: when I say sorry—which I don’t enough—I mean it.

This is when I can offer a full apology. Not the “I am sorry if you were offended” sort, which is but a meaningless cellar of salt delivered directly to the wound I have inflicted. But the, “I am sorry I offended you, and I want you to know that I understand the true nature of my offence”.

A quicker way of saying this is that I don’t apologise until I get to the place where I am ready to face my true obligation to apologise. Or: when I say sorry—which I don’t enough—I mean it.

We are still waiting for an Australian media company, at the centre of controversy over comments made relating to Roxane Gay’s weight, to truly say sorry. They were unconscionably rude; in this case, to Roxane Gay, a US woman who has released a much-anticipated memoir on the subject of fat. Gay not only elects to call herself fat and assert it, but has written very publicly about the trauma that led to her weight gain and the long therapeutic struggle to its loss.

Gay manages, as many have not, to separate the unreasonable loathing other people have for fat from her own intimate experience of it.

Gay is unusually considered in her feminist approach to fat, and well-loved for it. She powerfully says both (a) for you, there’s nothing wrong with being fat; assert it if you will and (b) for me, there is something awry with this fat; I have taken the decision to change my body, which I can only do by applying great changes to my mind.

Gay manages, as many have not, to separate the unreasonable loathing other people have for fat from her own intimate experience of it. She says on the one hand, there is unhelpful fat-phobia from others, and on the other, there is the everyday experience of fat itself. She is candid about how these things coincide, and how they don’t. I believe, as do many, that her frankness will be useful to people who find that their bodies don’t fit social norms. She wants to make room in society for fat, but, she also asks how her own experience produced it.

So, you’d think that a media company who sought to interview Gay about the very thinking that made her so popular would, maybe, not start by mentioning how very, very fat she is, and just how “heartbreaking” the company found that fact.

The post has been removed by the company, but the internet is stubborn and preserves the record. The media company now “apologises”, but only in that old “I am sorry if you were offended” way.

The company does what we have all done at some point: apologise before we were ready to admit that we had done wrong. The company says it was only being “honest”, as though to be honestly rude is somehow more justifiable that being cynically vile.

Here’s the thing: your intention to offend does not matter. The offence is the thing. And if an entire and highly valued professional media company with a brand built on female empowerment can’t make time for a meeting to work out the ethics of how much they have erred, then I do not consider them qualified to offer instructions on ethics to their audience of young women.

The company says it was only being “honest”, as though to be honestly rude is somehow more justifiable that being cynically vile.

You do not say sorry until you mean it. You may offer some context for your error, of course: I was in a bad mood, I’d had a fight with Mum, I was coming off the back of seventeen cocktails—all of which, by the way, can only be employed by an individual person, not a company with many procedures and employees. What you may not do ever is simply claim that you were misunderstood.

To say “I am sorry if you were offended” is not an apology. It’s an accusation that the wounded person failed.

I believe Roxane Gay did not fail. The failure here is of a media company too arrogant and too green to understand its error.

Say sorry. When you are ready to mean it.

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