On The Language of Offense and Non-Apologies

Katt Williams has offered an apology for some “offensive statements” he made at a recent show.

For most of the video, I honestly don’t know what’s going on. Williams appears to be out of his goddamn mind. The crowd appears to be crazy too, but it’s Arizona, so it’s really not that surprising. Because I couldn’t really focus on his words, I mostly just watched him aggressively prowl the stage and sing the national anthem. I was also distracted by the women on stage. I assume they are apart of his act, which is potentially troubling when you consider what his act is, but I don’t know. That’s a discussion for another day. What I am focusing on is his “apology.”

“My remarks were not meant to be offensive.” What the fuck? His apology is genuinely the most nonsensical thing I’ve ever read. If  he wasn’t trying to be offensive, what the hell was he trying to do? Be consoling? He was dealing with a heckler for chrissakes. There are multiple strategies for dealing with hecklers, but the main one – and the one he’s clearly using – is to offend the shit out of them. From a comedic standpoint, it certainly worked. The[racist] audience was clearly on his side.

I know that I’m singling Williams out here, but I’m not inviting you to boycott Katt Williams or Arizona (I might be lying about the latter). I just have a deeper concern.

That concern is that “apologies” like this are frighteningly common. Earlier today I was walking around campus and I crossed paths with some frat dudes who were dressed up like “Indians” and whooping. My gut reaction was to go inform someone, but I didn’t because I felt that not only would no one care (If people really cared about Native Americans, there would be no such thing as the Washington Redskins or “The Blue Indian“), but if they did care, I’d get an apology similar to Williams’. Example: “We did not mean to offend anyone.” And then life would continue with me looking like an asshole and my real concern being ignored.

See, the truth is that I wasn’t offended. After all, their stupidity was neither directed toward me nor toward anyone, really. Thus, an apology like that would not only ignore my real qualms, but also make the perpetrators feel unjustly accused. This is my issue with this language of offense. When we speak of things being “offensive,” we both focus all of our energy on the reaction of the “offended party” and assume that that reaction is the only thing that makes us accountable. Apologies like Williams’ and the hypothetical (yet probable) one by my peers/administration, rather than focusing on what caused my negative reaction, focus on the reaction itself, ultimately eliding any serious discussion.

To be fair, we must also admit that “offended parties” frame themselves as such. Often, when we’re in the moment it is hard to articulate our grievances because our gut reaction is all we have; we know something is deeply wrong, but we just can’t explain it beyond our reaction to it. For instance, at a Halloween party last year, I was asked by stranger if I was dressed as Obama (for the record, I wasn’t – unless Obama shops at American Eagle and Old Navy) and rather than giving a passionate extemporaneous speech all I said was, “That’s offensive,” and walked away. In retrospect I probably should have at least tried to explain why I reacted that way. Because I didn’t, those dudes are forever going to think I’m just some over-sensitive Black dude, if they even remember that scenario in the first place. I could dismiss that as a just a bad experience with some racist assholes (which it was, fundamentally), but it was more than that. It was also a missed opportunity to combat racism. When we fail to admit our own shortcomings, we help to perpetuate racism. Sounds kind of racist to me.

The problem with the current way in which we speak of offense can be found in the old story [that I made up] about the two neighbors who have never met, yet always complain about each other. Mike and Susan live next door to each other, but have never met. Nevertheless, they hate each other. Mike hates Susan because she always plays her music loudly, despite the fact that he always calls the cops. Susan hates Mike because he’s Black (kidding) never come over  to talk to her about her music levels, yet continues to call the police on her. It’s easy to blame Susan for playing her music loudly, but I think we should criticize Mike too. In his defense, Susan is Greek a huge Asher Roth fan. Regardless, his failure to speak to Susan, to acknowledge her as his neighbor, his peer, a person just like himself, undoubtedly contributes to her recidivism.

Before summing everything up, I’d like to say that I know that apologies are often just formalities (meaning they aren’t intended to be genuine) and that my hypothetical case is hypothetical. Nevertheless, for those people who want to make sincere apologies and those people want their offenders to understand their offenses, I believe this is an important thing to discuss. As long as we fail to talk to each other about why things are offensive, we’re going to continue to offend each other. That’s just stupid.

Update: The Katt Williams fiasco wasn’t my ultimate concern, but I feel obligated to post this update. It turns out that his apology was not his apology. But paradoxically he offers an apology under the circumstance that someone think he’s Anti-Mexican. What? Williams later offers a wider context for the joke. The entire joke itself is problematic (racist) and his newer “apology” is dubious as hell, so my points still remain. What a bizarre situation.