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The True Shame of Letterman’s Non-Apology

In Apologetic rhetoric on June 16, 2009 at 3:55 pm

In case you missed it, David Letterman has been in some hot water recently for his inappropriate joke of Governor Sara Palin’s daughter. Despite explicitly stating that he takes “full blame” for the “bad” joke, Letterman’s apology isn’t really an apology at all.

More importantly, the acceptance of his statements indicates a sad commentary on our true values when it comes to privacy and gender equality in terms of the double standard applied to women and sexuality. Let’s look at the language he used to see why it’s so disturbing.

As Aaron Lazare notes, apologies heal by meeting one or more of the 7 elements of apologies: acknowledging the offense, offering an explanation, communicating certain attitudes (shame, humility, sincerity, remorse), offering reparations, using proper timing, and negotiating differences between the parties.

At first glance, it may look like Letterman addresses some of those needs. After all, he did explain what happened, stated that it was his responsibility, and even said the words “I would like to apologize” and “I’m sorry.”

There are two problems, however, with his so-called apology: (1) *what* he is apologizing for and (2) *who* he is apologizing to.

In terms of the “what he apologized for,” we can look deeper into his explanation. For instance, Letterman begins his statement by saying:

“I thought I was telling it about the older daughter being at Yankees Stadium, and it was, it was kind of a coarse joke—there’s no getting around it.

He does admit it was a “coarse” or vulgar joke, but he couches that term by saying it was “kind of” coarse and, ultimately, seems dismissive of the vulgarity, as if that is not a major issue.

What is a major issue, according to his explanation, is the mistake of telling the joke about the 14-year-old girl, rather than the 18-year-old.

“But I never thought it was anybody other than the older daughter, and before the show I checked to make sure in fact that she is of legal age, 18,” Letterman stated.

“I had, honestly, no idea that the 14-year-old girl… I had no idea that anybody was at the game except the governor…. turns out [the 14-year-old daughter] was at the ballgame. I had no idea she was there. So she’s now at the ballgame, and people think that I made the game about her.”

Here we see two things…

First, Letterman states again and again that he was unaware that the younger girl was there. This is a strategy of evading—rather than accepting—responsibility known as defeasibility. According to William Benoit, the strategy of defeasibility takes place when a person essentially blames the situation on a lack of information, which is precisely what Letterman focuses on in his statement.

Second, Letterman layers that defeasibility with a strategy of bolstering, which attempts to reduce the offensiveness of the act by highlighting positive attributes—in this case, Letterman’s supposed fact checking that the older daughter “is of legal age.” Of course, that supposed fact checking seems less than credible since he wasn’t even able to check the facts about *who* was attending.

More importantly, even if it was the older daughter, does her being of “legal age” make such a joke appropriate?

Undoubtedly, this situation gained prominence because of the younger daughter’s age, but an issue of just as much importance is that Letterman chose to portray the young daughter of a politician using the double standard of sexual promiscuity on national television—and many people find that offensive whether the girl is 14 or 18 or 19.

According to Letterman’s statement, that aspect doesn’t even register on his radar. In short, Letterman was merely apologizing because the joke was perceived as being about a 14-year-old girl, rather than an 18-year-old girl. He doesn’t acknowledge that he was wrong to even joke about the sexuality of a politician’s daughter, let alone to case that young woman as sexually promiscuous. And that is shame.

Unfortunately, that is only one of the problems with Letterman’s apology. In addition to not apologizing for the larger offense, he also frames his apology in such a way that, in Aaron Lazare’s words, subtly “transforms the victim into the cause of the offense and the offender into a blameless and generous benefactor.

For example, Letterman stated:

“Now I’m beginning to understand what the problem is here. It’s the perception, rather than the intent. It doesn’t make any difference what my intent was. It’s the perception.”

He goes on to say:

“My intent is completely meaningless compared to the perception. And since it was a joke I told, I feel that I need to do the right thing here and apologize for having told that joke. It’s not your fault that it was misunderstood; it’s my fault that it was misunderstood.”

Despite explicitly stating that it is his fault and not the fault of the governor, her family or the audience, Letterman actually performs a strategy of evading responsibility by claiming good intentions. It’s a subtle, backhanded way of pushing responsibility onto others even though your exact words say they are not responsible.

A final example of this shift of blame came near the end of Letterman’s statement when he said he apologized to Governor Palin, her daughters, and “everybody else who was outraged by the joke.”

The “everyone else who was outraged” is the telling part. Such language comes across in much the same was as saying “if you were offended” which, according to Lazare, really means: “Not everyone would be offended by my behavior. If you have a problem with being so thin-skinned, I will apologize to you because of your need (your weakness) and my generosity. I hope this makes you happy.”

These negative aspects were driven home with Letterman’s casual—not very sincere or remorseful—concluding statement of “I’m sorry about it and I’ll try to do better in the future.

Overall, it was another poor example of a celebrity’s apologia disguised as an apology. But, more importantly and much worse is the idea that most headlines will focus on either the politics behind the situation (Letterman as a liberal who hates Republicans) or on the ratings (does this ultimately help or hurt his ratings?) instead of the issues of privacy and gender equality.

In the end, the true importance of Letterman’s non-apology is the negative commentary it has on our social vales and our willingness to stand by idly as young girls are publicly portrayed as sexually promiscuous. In that sense, Letterman’s apology doesn’t just shame him, it shames us all if we accept it.

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  1. Thanks for the information and discussion about apology. Please refrain from mentioning Dr. Aaron Lazare in your posts unless you also note his long history of discrimination, psychological abuse, physical battering, and forced termination of multiple female MDs and PhDs at UMass Medical Center. He ran the most violent department in the already very violent medical center. Many women from the medical center were intentionally harmed to prevent their advocacy for patients and for themselves. Most became physically or psychologically harmed, some even lost family members. Criminal assaults were common against female patients and not subject to law review due to intimidation and slander.

    Aaron Lazare is a malignant, dangerous fraud. He is not someone you want to be associated with, even peripherally.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I think you make some good points about Rodriguez as well as the hypocrisy of some conservatives.

    The point many people are taking issue with–and that I still see in his non-apology–is that Letterman chose to attack a young girl (be she 14 or 18) to get to her mother. To make matters much worse, he framed her as sexually promiscuous because she has a child. He did not and still does not see either of those aspects as being wrong or off limits. He only apologizes for people “misunderstanding” that he was attacking the sexuality of the 18-year-old daughter of a politician, rather than the 14-year-old.

    Letterman could have attacked Palin for hypocrisy and, while that would still be political fodder, it would remove the element of attacking a young woman’s sexuality. Likewise, Letterman could have focused on Rodriguez as a public figure without framing the joke around the supposed promiscuity of a young woman.

  3. Why did he have to apologize at all? Why is this all about ‘young girls…publicly portrayed as sexually promiscuous’ when the commentary was equally, if not more so, critical of Rodriquez’ problems with infidelity?

    As crude as the wording was, his joke has some redeeming values that are being overshadowed Palin’s false indignation. He pointed out both the inappropriateness of Rodreguez’s personal misdeeds as well as the hypocrisy of Palin and other conservative leaders who preach the virtues of Christian morality and abstinence only sex eduction over comprehensive sex ed only to be betrayed by their own personal lives.

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