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Tiger Woods’ Apology (and the Criticisms)

In Apologetic rhetoric, Rhetorical analysis on February 22, 2010 at 2:51 pm

In late November 2009, reports started to break in the media about Tiger Woods and extramarital affairs. In the ensuing drama, Woods crashed his car into a fire hydrant and a tree at 2:30 in the morning. The media furry and speculation about the accident—and Woods’ affairs—grew. Eventually, Woods admitted the affairs, but refused to comment further—stating that he regretted his “transgressions” and claiming that the situation was ultimately a personal, family matter.

Woods' Website on 12-2-09 (click to enlarge)

As may have been expected, the subject didn’t disappear from the media, and on Friday, February 19, 2010, Woods took the podium to release a statement and apologize.

Shortly after, a transcript of Woods’ statement was also released on his website. (Download a PDF of the transcript.)

Woods' Website on 2-19-10 (click to enlarge)

Since then, numerous pundits and news shows have commented on Woods’ statement—offering their opinions of its success or shortcomings. The following comments differ in that my aim isn’t to evaluate or make claims about the success or failure of his apology. Rather, I intend to examine the statement and explore some of the surrounding issues that Woods’ situation reveals about public apologies.

STATEMENT OF SORROW

By nearly all accounts, any apology must include a statement of sorrow.

For example, Lazare (2004) argued that the apology process includes acknowledging the offense, offering an explanation, communicating remorse, and offering reparations. Marrus (2007) stated that an apology must include an acknowledgment of wrongdoing, acceptance of responsibility, an expression of regret and remorse, and reparation and a commitment to not commit the wrong again. Similarly, Govier (2006) described eight characteristics of a “moral apology”: (1) acknowledging the wrongful act, (2) saying sorry for committing the act, (3) accepting moral responsibility for committing the act, (4) not justifying or excusing the act, (5) inviting forgiveness from the victim, (6) explicitly or implicitly stating that the victim deserved better treatment, (7) reassuring the victim that the harmful act or a similar act will not happen again, and (8) offering amends.

Such statements of sorrow have also been termed mortification (Burke, 1970; Benoit, 1995) in which the accused admits wrongful behavior as well as asks for forgiveness and apologizes.

In looking at Woods’ statement, we see a number of these aspects. Numerous times in the statement, Woods unconditionally admitted that his actions were wrong and accepts personal, direct responsibility for those actions. He also stated multiple times that he was “deeply sorry” for his behavior. Finally, it should be noted that Woods practically went out of his way to state the multiple people and organizations that have been harmed by his actions. This aspect of Woods’ statement helps mend relationships by identifying the victims (Edwards, 2005), reinforcing “the victims’ version of history” (Gibbs, 2008), and indicating that the victim deserved better treatment (Grovier, 2006).

LACK OF EXPLANATION, BOLSTERING, ATTACKING THE MEDIA

Despite the presence of these aspects in Woods’ statement, it wasn’t a perfect apology. For one thing, Woods was reluctant to provide any real explanation, but instead talked in general terms about his “irresponsible and selfish behavior.” This is important because the absence of an explanation can leave many people questioning whether Woods truly understands what actions were wrong and why—not to mention whether he even agrees that they were wrong.

Additionally, there were times throughout the statement where Woods’ comments leaned more towards bolstering (e.g., providing details about the good work that his foundation has done) and attacking the accuser (e.g., scolding the media for the pursuit of him and his family).

SINCERITY

One of the biggest complaints about Woods’ statement was that he read his comments rather than spoke from the heart (as some pundits have complained). Reading, of course, isn’t the real issue. Instead, reading his comments (for many people) is an indication of Woods’ sincerity. If he has to read the words—the thinking goes—he isn’t really feeling them. Not to mention that it reinforces the belief that the entire apology/statement was choreographed by Woods’ public relations people.

Admittedly, Woods covered a number of points in his statement, and since the statement was issued live, he only had one chance to make sure he used the right wording and covered each point. One might ask: Would it be worse to read the statement and appear scripted…or to mis-state or forget something? In some ways, I think either option gives the media more fodder for ongoing coverage of Woods.

Still, a middle ground may have helped Woods better demonstrate his sincerity. Perhaps reading a short statement and then talking from the heart. Perhaps not including so many points that the statement took more than 13 minutes to deliver. Perhaps making use of his website and social networking to expand on some points. And perhaps not mentioning indirectly related items, such as media speculation about performance enhancing drugs.

PARTICIPATION

An interesting criticism about Woods’ statement is that it was not a press conference. That is, media cameras were limited and no questions were taken. A number of sports writers and media personalities have since complained that some of Woods’ comments went unchallenged or that they were not able to explore the car crash or the number of transgressions.

While Woods made an attempt to quell such inquiries by stating that the details were a personal matter for him and his wife to discuss, the criticism about the lack of questions brings up the issue of participation—particularly third-party participation.

In my dissertation (as well as in articles and blog posts), I have noted how current European/American-based theories of apologetic rhetoric often view third-party participation as a hindrance to the apology process. For example, even Tavuchis (1991)—who described the Many to Many apology—ultimately argued that “it is precisely in such public confrontations that the negative implications of apology are likely to manifest themselves” (p. 122). In fact, Tavuchis (1991) went so far as to argue that third-party participation “typically militates against a mutually acceptable and morally satisfying resolution insofar as it interferes with the normal unfolding of the process or shifts the grounds of discourse so as to include other issues” (p. 51).

My own research into apologetic exchanges in Rwanda identified that such third-party participation is not only accepted, it is expected. I argue that the Woods’ situation highlights the need for more research into third-party participation in public apologies.

POWER

Another notable criticism of Woods’ statement was that it was tightly controlled. As I stated above, the cameras were limited and questions were not allowed. While these criticisms relate to participation, they also highlight the importance of power in apologetic rhetoric.

Acts of wrongdoing include an underlying element of the perpetrator disrespecting other people (Thompson, 2008). Therefore, an important element of an apology is the re-balancing of that power. As Pablo de Greiff (2008) noted, an apology “puts the offender in a position of vulnerability, and therefore redraws the balance of power” (p. 129). This redrawing of power is “at the heart of the healing process” (Lazare, 1995, p. 42). Through the apologetic process, there is a reversal of power in which the victim is temporarily in a position of power, of being able to accept or not accept the apology.

Unfortunately, Woods’ tight control of his statement’s delivery—in combination with his history of remaining private and tightly controlling his image and the media’s access to him and his family—likely left many people in the media and in the television audience to believe that Woods was once again refusing to relinquish power and truly put himself at the mercy of the public. Even if he said the right things and even if he had demonstrated sincere remorse, his inability to relinquish power would probably have been enough to undermine his apology. Power is that important of an element.

MANNER AND CONTENT

Ultimately, Hearit (2006) argued that analysis (and evaluation) of apologetic rhetoric comes down to two elements: the manner and the content.

In terms of the content, an apology should: acknowledge wrongdoing, accept responsibility, express regret, identify with the victims, ask for forgiveness, seek reconciliation, disclose relevant information, provide an explanation that addresses the victims’ questions and concerns, and offer corrective actions and compensation. For the most part, Woods’ statement met many of these elements (with the exception of disclosing detailed information about his marital transgressions—and one has to question whether those details really are a matter for the public to hear).

In terms of the manner, however, apologies should be truthful, sincere, timely, and voluntary. In Woods’ case, these are the elements he is being most criticized for—including taking much too long to issue an apology and being insincere when he finally stepped forward to deliver one.

An interesting future study that might result from this situation would be to test an audience’s evaluation of the visual performance of the apology versus the actual wording of Woods’ statement. By this I mean testing one group’s opinion of Woods and his apology after they watch a video of his statement, and then comparing that to the opinion of another group that is only given access to the transcript.

I, for one, would be interested in hearing the results of such a study.

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