The public apology is a strange thing in our 21st century world. What does it mean when golfer Tiger Woods apologizes for his womanizing? What about when BP produces television spots that promote their clean up work in the Gulf without ever apologizing for the devastation wrought by their corporation? Do public apologies matter?
I’ve wondered about this since MTV’s Video Music Awards a couple weeks ago. This yearly spectacle celebrates the music industry in glamorous and scandalous fashion and this year’s show was overshadowed by the specter of the 2009 broadcast in which black rapper Kanye West stole the microphone from white country singer Taylor Swift in order to opine that she should have not won an award, rather that Beyonce should have won. The resulting backlash was incredible – Kanye became something of a popular pariah, the moment was repeatedly aped, even President Obama offered an off-the-cuff comment about the stupidity of Kanye. Swift went on to sweep major musical awards for an entire year, winning each with a wide-eyed sense of innocence and wonder that mirrors that found in her songs of chaste romance and high school heartbreak. The fallout seemed out of size to the actual event and often unspoken but made clear was the ways in which this became a story about innocent whiteness with blonde hair pitched against the rude drunkenness of black male rappers. Kanye proved unspoken assumptions about the failures of African Americans to understand decorum. Forget, of course, that this was the MTV Video Music Awards at which pranks and hijinks are common, forget that in spite of her songwriting chops Swift essentially rewrites the same two songs which talk about innocence in the kind of virgin-‘til-marriage rhetoric offered by the Christian Rights. Wounding the white girl always makes her more attractive – anyone who’s ever seen 1920’s serial film knows that.
The slight was in 2009, the apology came this year. Well, sort of. Swift’s performance at the VMAs opened with a black and white clip of her deflowering at the hands of Kanye the previous year. The song she performed was a maudlin affair in which she counseled an unnamed listener that “you’re still an innocent” because “You’ll have new Septembers / Everyone of us has messed up too.” Kanye’s response to this shot at salvation closed the show. The new song “Runaway” was somewhere between an apology and the rapper mocking himself, calling for a toast to “the douchebags,” “the assholes,” “the scumbags,” and “the jerkoffs” while lily-white ballerinas danced around him. Kanye was dressed in a blood red suit that painted him as the devil in this passion play of a satirical apologia. The real apologies occurred elsewhere with Kanye expressing regret in interviews and through the popular website Twitter.
So I’m back where I started, questioning the nature of a public apology – are these worthwhile? Do we need to see Taylor and Kanye act out roles of contrition and absolution with bling and finger waves? In her book Giving An Account of Oneself, feminist philosopher Judith Butler considers the creation of self through speech acts that require a Hegelian other. She argues that “the very being of the self is dependent, not just on the existence of the other in its singularity . . . but also on the social dimension of normativity that governs the scene of recognition” (23). We cannot exist “without addressing the other and without being addressed by the other” because of our “fundamental sociality,” according to Butler (33). This is a process of simultaneous give and take in which we are present as the result of recognition by the other, the person or the broader scene of normativity which allows us to be legible. To be understandable as a subject, the world needs to know how to read us and by reading us it makes us. The public apology reveals our norms and the necessity for the public apology springs from the ways that public figures find themselves read by their various audiences. I don’t mean necessarily in a literal sense but rather how any figure, public or not (and really we are all – as I quoted Butler – fundamentally social), interprets their actions through the lens of the other providing that necessary act of recognition and reading. When Kanye apologizes, he does so because his actions have been read through normative notions about race, sexuality and class (one can just imagine the assumptions about what happens when Black men have access to money and privilege) which mark him as the bogeyman. His apology may not mean that I suddenly buy his albums, it may not lead to a one-to-one action on my part, but my position as listener and part of a public marks me as complicit in the norms that require his apology.
I am discomfited by the Swift/West debacle not just because I suspect that the country singer has ridden it to extremes but also because it seems out of size especially when compared to the unfortunate abuse scandal surrounding R&B singers Rihanna and Chris Brown. Race clearly still operates in this case of intimate partner violence by a Black man to his Black girlfriend, but Brown’s failure to actually apologize for what I would consider a far graver offense speaks not just to his poor decisions. Brown has consistently couched his apologies in excuses (his father was abusive to his mother, cycles of abuse), album come-ons, macho swagger or – in what I consider the worst editing choice on 20/20 – followed by a tour through his SHOE COLLECTION. Brown’s failure to provide a straightforward apology, his decision to accept this crime in court yet still question the veracity of his ex-girlfriend’s claims in spite of pictures leaked onto the Internet speaks to a public that seems less shocked or perhaps more willing to forgive for a bevy of disturbing possible reasons. His performance and breakdown at the BET Music Awards this summer during a Michael Jackson tribute and then his mother’s ill-considered tweet recently about MJ’s death serving to give her son life to speak to an engineered redemption journey. Instead of apology and example, Brown has given us anger over the failure of his last album. Where is his public apology? Are we more upset collectively when a Black man interrupts a White woman than we are when a Black man hits a Black woman out of anger? Is this the normative frame through which his public speech acts should be read? One in which West went into exile while Brown tweeted pictures of his community service. It turns my stomach that this is how these men are made legible. These are the sites of recognition called for them.