Wednesday, April 29, 2015

I was wrong and I am sorry

I was wrong.
I made a mistake.
I messed up.

Why are these phrases so hard for us to say?

I used to think that admitting any of the above was the worst thing I could possibly do.  It triggered all sorts of shame, fear, and impostor feelings.  If I didn't do everything perfectly -- the first time -- there was something wrong with me.  If people knew there was something wrong with me, then they would know I was a fake and didn't deserve to be here.  So when someone pointed out to me that I had done something wrong, my first reaction was to be defensive, make justifications, deny the mistake or wrong-doing.  I acted this way because of some warped belief that it would make me look better and feel better about the situation.  

It did neither.

I am an admin for a group on Facebook which discusses issues of equity and inclusion in physics and astronomy. Through my work in this group I regularly engage in complex conversations about race, [dis]ability, LGBTQIA+ status, size, nationality, class, age, and gender.  My primary purpose for having these conversations is to try to learn how to be a better ally and supporter of those who are members of underrepresented and marginalized groups.  I also hope to improve the climates in astronomy and physics so that we are more inclusive and have better representation of people from these groups.

As part of this work (and my work as a contributor to this blog), I make mistakes.  These mistakes are public (like an ignorant blog post, or an offensive action as an admin). These mistakes are hurtful. These mistakes propagate misinformation.  These mistakes uphold the oppression of marginalized groups of people.  These mistakes are a result of my [white, straight, cis, thin, young, american, able-bodied] privilege.

Often my mistakes are pointed out to me. Sometimes this occurs in private, sometimes it is a public call-out.  Sometimes the person is calm and gentle, sometimes the person is angry and harsh.  Sometimes I instantly understand the error in my ways, sometimes I do not understand what I did wrong.  

Let me give a concrete example.  Last week I was curating for a science communication handle on twitter (@realscientists) and I was tweeting about the underrepresentation of white women and people of color in STEM, and someone responded:
My throat tightened. Blood rushed to my face. My heart raced. I felt embarrassed.  I felt ashamed.  I felt misunderstood.  I felt defensive. 

My first thought was: "Hey I only have 140 characters here, give me a break."

That's ok.  It's ok for my first thought to be defensive.  But vocalizing that defensiveness isn't helpful. It doesn't make the people with disabilities who are reading my words feel better about being forgotten in my original tweet.  It doesn't make the mother reading -- whose son with a disability wants nothing more than to become a scientist -- feel more hopeful about her son being supported and accepted by the scientific community. 

Ultimately, what is my goal?  To prove to the world that I am perfect or to make the world better for people with disabilities? So I instead I say:

Admitting fault and apologizing isn't that complicated, yet again and again I see people struggle to do it without being defensive or critical of those who identified the mistake.  And I get it, because I also have a tendency to feel defensive and misunderstood in these moments.

Slate's "Bad Astronomer" Phil Plait recently published an apology for a video he posted on YouTube which included a transphobic joke.  I applaud Plait for publicly responding to the criticism, for removing the offensive joke from the video, and for promising to try and do better in the future.  However, his apology was problematic and he falls into some common apologizing-the-wrong-way traps that I will highlight below.

As someone who has made quite a few public mistakes (and has also apologized incorrectly) I'd like to share my experience of what to do and not to do when you make a mistake and you want to correct it.

Don't get defensive 
"You are too sensitive."
"It was just a joke."
"But I'm not racist/sexist/homophobic/ableist."

I don't enjoy being told that I did something wrong, especially when my intent is to be an ally and my effect is oppressing those I am trying to support.  It sucks.

But you know what sucks more?  Being the person who is not only hurt by what I just did, but now has the uncomfortable task of telling me that I messed up.  If I get defensive, I add insult to injury by denying wrong-doing or telling the person that they are too sensitive.  This is not how allies behave.

Instead, I pause, and breath, and listen.  I think about what an incredible learning opportunity this is for me. Here is someone who is willing to do something uncomfortable in order to try and help me understand. Here is someone who is helping me get outside my limited perspective so that I can be more compassionate of others.  Here is an opportunity to learn, change, and (hopefully) never make this mistake again.  It's actually an incredible gift to be called-out, even if it doesn't always feel that way in the moment.  

So instead of being defensive, I listen and I try to understand why what I did was wrong, and I thank the person for being willing to point out my mistake and take the time to help me learn how to be a better ally.

Don't focus on intentions
“Oh, I didn’t mean it like that”
“You’re interpreting this wrong.”
"I had nothing but good intentions."

By focusing on my intentions, I am attempting to deflect criticism and change the conversation.  This is a derailment tactic and it is another form of defensiveness.  Do my intentions really matter if my words or actions have the impact of furthering the marginalization or oppression of those around me?  It is the impact of my actions, not my intention that matters.

So instead of making the conversation about me -- which is a pretty self-centered thing to do in these moments -- I listen with the intention of understanding the impact of my behavior and the ways I can change in order to prevent repeating the mistake in the future.

In his apology Phil Plait repeatedly focused on the intentions of his video production team ("that wasn't at all our intent", "it didn't occur to us", "the joke wasn’t intended that way").  It would have been better if he had​ used the mistake as an opportunity to raise awareness of how transphobia presents itself, and why the impact of his actions was hurtful.  It would have been better if he had focused on the unconscious biases (we all have) which resulted in this mistake, and what he will do to prevent this from happening in the future.

Don't non-apologize or blame the other person
"I'm sorry that you were offended"
"I'm sorry that you feel that way"
"I'm sorry if anyone was hurt by what I did."

non-apology is when I don't actually admit any wrong-doing or say that I am sorry for my behavior itself, but instead say that I am sorry you are so sensitive.  Instead of taking responsibility for my actions, I am putting the blame on the other person by saying that it is their fault for being offended. Don't do this. I personally think it's better to not apologize at all than to issue a victim-blaming apology.

​Instead say:
"I'm sorry for my offensive behavior."
"I was wrong and I understand why it is upsetting​."
"I understand ​why what I did was hurtful​."​

In his apology Phil Plait never actually acknowledged his wrong-doing, instead he non-apologized ("I apologize ... to anyone offended", "I can easily see where transgender folks would be put off by it"). It would have been better if he had instead explained why this joke is offensive, period.  It would have been better if he had taken responsibility for the mistake and actually apologized.

Don't tone police 
"Calm down."
"You are hurting your cause by getting angry."
"I'm not going to talk to when you are like this."
"Why are you being so aggressive?"

Tone policing is another form of derailment.  It turns out, the tone of a statement actually has nothing to do with the content of a statement. By calling attention to the tone I am distracting from what the person is staying, avoiding engagement with the content, and undermining the other person by attempting to shut down the conversation.  Usually tone policing is an act done by a person in a position of power /privilege towards a person who has relatively less power / privilege.

I avoid commenting on a person's tone at all in these situations because it actually is irrelevant.  

It's not all about me
When I make a mistake and get called out, that moment isn't about me.  It is about the systematic oppression and marginalization that is happening everyday.  I am contributing to a much larger problem.  It is helpful for me to understand that a person's response to my mistake is also a reaction to a lifetime of mistakes and hurt. It is important for me to be compassionate and understanding and see my behavior in a larger societal context. 

Mistakes come with the territory
Everyone makes mistakes.  Part of the challenge of being an ally is to try and overcome my biases and understand the lived experiences of others.  I will make mistakes in this process.  I will uphold oppression. I will say and do things that are prejudice. I will be ignorant of how my privilege impacts my world-view.  When I think about that blog post I wrote, I cringe.  That embarrassment means I have changed.  I am different because of that mistake.  It's progress, not perfection.

Ultimately the best apology contains the below elements:
1) Listen to the offended person and try to understand their perspective.
2) Demonstrate that you understand why what you did was offensive/wrong.
3) Acknowledge the hurt you caused and the damage done.
4) Take responsibility for the situation.
5) Express genuine remorse.
6) Make amends and ask how you can make the situation right.
7) Promise that it won't happen again.
8) Actively try and change your behavior.
9) Say thank you to the other person for bringing the situation to your attention.

The astronomy community is conflicted right now over the construction of the Thirty-Meter-Telescope on Mauna Kea. Many of us are engaging in challenging conversations about colonialism, race, and indigenous rights. If you make a mistake in these conversations, and are called-out, I hope the above will give you a roadmap for how to respond and learn from the experience.  

Additional Reading
How to Apologize by Franchesca Ramsey
Getting Called Out by Erin Tatum
Intent vs Impact by Jamie Utt
Derailing for Dummies
Definition of Non-Apology on Wikipedia
I'm sorry if you were offended on Geek Feminism
Sorry, not sorry: How to Non-Apologize by Laura Beck
Tone Argument on Geek Feminism
Tone Policing on Tumbler
On Tone Policing by NinjaCate
How to Say I'm Sorry on Perfect Apology
How to Apologize on Mind Tools


Anonymous said...

I think this is amazingly churlish. I think his apology was as earnest and honest as you could hope for. It was not a non-apology: if it was, he'd have said "I apologise if I offended anyone". He didn't - he said "I apologize for myself and on behalf of the team to anyone offended by the joke". He wasn't defensive. He didn't say "it was just a joke", or "you are too sensitive". He said "None of us would knowingly make a joke at the expense of a group of people, especially one already marginalized and so often mocked in society". He apologised sincerely and wholeheartedly, and even went so far as to criticize people who said he shouldn't have apologised.

To nit-pick that is unpleasant and really not helpful, I think.

berkeleyjess said...

Thanks for talking the time to give me feedback Anonymous!

I am not sure I understand where I am being mean-spirited or surly (I had to look up churlish) towards Phil Plait. Can you help me understand what I said that is churlish exactly?

Anonymous said...

I think it's a real shame to take a sincere and well meant apology and then criticise it. That to me is very churlish. He didn't commit, as far as I can see, any of the sins of apology that you accuse him of. That his language somewhat resembles that used in classic non-apologies does not mean that his was a non-apology.

Looking at your list of suggestions on how to apologise, it seems to me that Phil Plait pretty much followed them to the letter.

1) Listen to the offended person and try to understand their perspective.

"As soon as she told me, I had a forehead-slapping moment. Of course this could be seen as transphobic. In retrospect it was obvious."

2) Demonstrate that you understand why what you did was offensive/wrong.

"None of us would knowingly make a joke at the expense of a group of people, especially one already marginalized and so often mocked in society."

3) Acknowledge the hurt you caused and the damage done.

"I can easily see where transgender folks would be put off by it, even angered."

4) Take responsibility for the situation.

"I apologize for myself and on behalf of the team to anyone offended by the joke"

5) Express genuine remorse.

"I apologize for myself and on behalf of the team to anyone offended by the joke"

6) Make amends and ask how you can make the situation right.

"the team felt the same way and had already re-edited the video to remove that part, and had re-uploaded it before I had even called"

7) Promise that it won't happen again.

"I hope you forgive us, and we’ll try to do better in the future."

8) Actively try and change your behavior.

"we’ll try to do better in the future." "This world could use a lot more social justice. I’ll be happy to fight for it when I can."

9) Say thank you to the other person for bringing the situation to your attention.

OK, he didn't do that.

But there was not, as far as I could see, any of the defensiveness or non-apologies that you accuse him of, and very definitely no tone-policing. There was, it is true, a description of intentions. I cannot see why you object to this. There's a big difference after all between setting out to cause offence, and doing so inadvertently. If I said something that was interpreted as racist, sexist, or in some other way discriminatory, for example, then it would be extremely important to me to make it clear that that was absolutely the last thing I intended. I fail to understand how that would make my apology any less valuable to you.

In short, when someone apologises sincerely, wholeheartedly, at length, and goes out of their way to criticise people who said they shouldn't apologise, I think it's very ungracious to criticise their apology in this way.

berkeleyjess said...

Anonymous -- you seem to have a different definition of churlish than the dictionary I am using. ;)

I guess we agree that I was not in fact mean-spirited. Critical yes, but not mean.

I don't agree that Phil Plait did all the items on my apology list, and I think my post explains why, if it's unclear to you, then perhaps you should discuss what I've written with a transperson in your community and get their perspective on the matter.

This is a missed opportunity to educate the readers of 'Bad Astronomy' about transphobia and microaggressions against transpeople. It's too bad Plait's apology didn't clearly explain why his actions were wrong, why his actions were hurtful, and exactly how he plans to prevent future mistakes.

I appreciate the feedback and the food for thought Anonymous. Like I said in the post, I applaud Phil Plait for responding to the criticism and editing the video. I hold him to a high standard, and I know he can do better. The post is an act of love. I care enough to call him out, because I believe he is an ally and open to feedback and open to improving.

John Johnson said...

Anonymous: It doesn't matter that none of Plait's team "would knowingly make a joke at the expense of other people." They did make a joke at the expense of trans* people, and by doing so they did damage.

Phil should have the courage and maturity to own up to it and apologize like a grown-up. Intent doesn't matter. Jessica addresses the issue of intent vs. impact very clearly in her article and supplies links to additional information. I encourage you to read carefully.

"It was just a joke" falls under Jessica's section for defensiveness. She does not blame Phil of defensiveness. Again, please read carefully.

Finally, making your apology conditional by including "if I offended anyone" implies that there is a possibility that no one was offended. Why would he do this when it's clear that his joke is offensive to the trans* community and their allies?

It looks to me that you need to re-read Jessica's article.

Jessica: I had to look up "churlish," too. I didn't see anything in your article that was mean-spirited or surly. Quite the opposite. What you wrote was clear, humble and informative. Keep up the good writing!

Anonymous said...

He doesn't make his apology conditional, in fact he says "I apologise for myself and on behalf of the team to anyone offended by the joke" - *to anyone offended* is not the same as "if anyone was offended", and it certainly comes across as an acknowledgement of the fact that his joke was indeed offensive

berkeleyjess said...

When Plait says "I apologize for myself and on behalf of the team to anyone offended by the joke" he separates himself from those who are offended. It 'others' the people who are offended and does not acknowledge that he believes what he did was wrong. He instead says... oh, I see why they (i.e. transgender) people were offended. It's subtle, and not as bad as the "if I offended anyone" apology, but it is still a non-apology.

Plait is a writer, this is what he does for a living. He knows the importance of being careful with his words and how to clearly express himself. He never admitted wrong-doing. He didn't demonstrate that he understood why it was offensive (period) not just to others.

What he did is very different than him saying: I was wrong, here is why I was wrong, I'm sorry, and here is what I am gonna do to prevent this from happening in the future.

Anonymous said...

[a different Anonymous]:

It's surprising that you suggest that by specifying a group to whom he's apologizing, Phil is making a non-apology.

He writes, "I apologize ... to anyone offended by the joke."

He could have simply said, "I apologize for the joke." and not specified whom he's apologizing to. Is that better?

I fail to see how specifying that he's apologizing to those who were offended by the joke turns it into a non-apology.

He also writes,
"Even if there was no harm meant in the joke, people may still take offense at it, and that’s their right. In this case, I can easily see where transgender folks would be put off by it, even angered."
He makes your case (that intent doesn't matter) before you write a blog post criticizing him on account of the fact that intent doesn't matter.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anonymous, thanks for leaving your comments. Your objections are helping to clarify what exactly is and is not a true apology.

I too read Plait's apologetic response as sincere and heart-felt. But I still had an uneasy feeling at the end of it. After a re-read I realized it was because he never actually came out and said "the joke was transphobic".

Here's what he said:
"Of course this could be seen as transphobic."
"None of us would knowingly make a joke"
"I can easily see where transgender folks would be put off by it"

Well, he did make a joke, and it was transphobic. It was transphobic no matter who saw it. Without stating this, he does not truly own up to his mistake. Failing to take responsibility in this way it what makes it a non-apology.

These are difficult topics, and we're all learning. Thank you for being a part of the dialog.

Unknown said...

2) Demonstrate that you understand why what you did was offensive/wrong.
"None of us would knowingly make a joke at the expense of a group of people, especially one already marginalized and so often mocked in society."

No, that doesn't demonstrate that he understands why what he said was offensive. It's an example of "I'm sorry if someone was offended", which always comes off as a sorry-not-sorry apology.

Unknown said...

You've raised many good points for discussion, Jessica. The issue about intent is probably the most difficult one for allies to grasp, because people who want to be allies are generally motivated by a desire to make the world better. Still, patriarchy, racism, ableism, classism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of discrimination are taken-for-granted aspects of our general socialisation, so when we contribute to oppression, regardless of whether we mean this or not, it's important that we fully own up to these mistakes. You've conveyed this well in your piece. It's commendable that you have chosen to not only learn from the past, but to also to reflect on this publicly.

I was pleased that Phil Plait started this conversation because it helps us to see not just that transphobia is part of everyday speech ("jokes"), but it also helps us to better understand why treating transgender people with the respect they deserve is more than just about saying sorry.

The reason why Plait did not see his "joke" as a problem until others pointed it out is because of his privilege as a cis-gender man. He is not as well educated as he could be on transgender issues; this is an opportunity for growth but more importantly to use his influence to better support transgender people. Plait does excellent public science; he has a large audience and lots of authority as a result. This means greater responsibility to do things right. It's perfectly reasonable to call Plait out on this, and to hope that he'll learn from this too and that he'll do better next time.

Good people with good intentions mess up. That's okay when they actively work to better their actions. Plait is working towards that. When we spend more time defending the person who hurt others, and debate the point of whether or not they meant to do wrong, then we are more eager to exonerate them and ignore the real issue as a result. Anonymous is doing this above. The issue here is inequality and experiences of marginalisation by transgender people. We don't talk about this enough in science. The conversation of how and why transphobia happens, including through everyday actions and words, is more important than defending public figures we admire.

The main thing to remember is that in allyship, the focus is on Others with less power. Learning to apologise properly, and owning the consequences of that apology, is paramount to being an ally.

Anonymous said...

Other anonymous

"Anyone" ain't "if anyone", but it does still leave open the idea that it could be no one. "Everyone" would be much better. Similarly "offended" is a bad word choice, because it's quite narrow, reflecting only a limited range of possible emotional reaction to seeing the video (someone saddened, for instance, ain't offended, but merits an apology). And it ignores the much bigger problem that to whatever extent the joke is taken as transphobic, it re-enforces that in society at large, which causes all sorts of other harms. "Everyone who was/is harmed/hurt" is much better. So, no, it's not a perfect apology, and it makes sense to talk about how it could've been done better - even if I don't agree with the assertion it was a non-apology.

There is, to me (anyhow), a disconnect reading this post, and the advice it gives. Plait is criticised for discussing his intentions, though it's impossible for him to own his screwup without saying it was an oversight he didn't intend. Note that here, where Kirkpatrick is discussing her own screwups, it's replete with references to how they were oversights/mistakes/done in ignorance, because its impossible to own your mistakes without acknowledging how they happened. And certainly, you can't talk about how you might avoid doing it again without acknowledging how you did it in the first place. But, of course, this is generalised advice, which I understand has to be stretched a bit to fit a real example (because Plait's apology is neither entirely perfect nor entirely flawed).

What I don't understand - at all - is the suggestion you should *promise* not to do it again. Obviously you will - look, I've done sexist/racist/homophobic/trans-phobic/able-ist/nationalist/otherwise bigoted things in the past. I am certainly I will again in the future. Hopefully, I'll catch myself (or someone else will catch me), and I can try to do better afterwards. But if I promise to do better, well, that's a promise I won't keep. If I promise to try to do better, that's a promise I can keep (and ditto for everyone else). Here it seems like Plait's "I'll try to do better" is a much better choice than the "I promise to never do it again". Am I missing something?

Anonymous said...


It is helpful that these issues are being discussed. There is a danger in these types of conversations in that producers and editors deliberately ignore these issues because they are "sensitive" and "might offend someone".

Purposefully ignoring issues related to being a transgender citizen in our society would be detrimental to progress.

That being said, was the original joke actually transphobic? There are several issues here:

Was the intent transphobic?
Did the original joke perpetuate stereotypes about the transgender people?
What are we the viewers actually laughing at?

The first issue is irrelevant of course. According to Plait, the butt of the joke was "Phil is ugly, and is uglier than Botticelli's Venus". It was not "transgender people are absurd/disgusting/laughable."

As I mentioned from the outset, it is very important to discuss the latter two issues, because this is exactly why Hollywood, TV executives, and media corporations ignore issues surrounding race, sex, etc. in our society----it might make people upset, and therefore we shouldn't touch it. This is exactly why comedians who discuss race in America (for example) find it so difficult to find platforms. Take Dave Chapelle, Aaron McGruder.

The standard cannot be "some people were offended, therefore let's delete all material and never touch THAT subject again". Some things are racist and/or transphobic. Some things are not.

A cis male's face with long blonde hair is not inherently funny, and it shouldn't be omitted from media representations. Were viewers laughing because the joke is "transgender is gross" or because another reason? If Plait deleted the joke simply because of worries that some people somewhere might be offended, then we are moving backwards.

Anonymous said...

I also feel that Phil's apology actually didn't fall into the traps (specific) mentioned here. He did own up. To say "I didn't mean it that way, therefore I don't need to apologize" is a big no-no, we all agree on that. But that's definitely not what Phil did. Some of the comments seem to imply that ANY mention of intention is unacceptable in an apology. This ignores the fact, in addition a privilege and an -ism underlying the problem, there is also often miscommunication. We cannot communicate effectively if we do not examine and explain the source of the miscommunication. In this case, the joke was meant to be "Phil's face is not pleasurable to look at," but he failed. He *admits* that. He doesn't use it as an excuse to not apologize, but he does lay the situation out for open discussion about what went wrong. I would much rather leave a conversation with an explanation *and* an apology, instead of just an apology the the sinking feeling, "Does he really think that about me / people like me?"

I also felt the "I apologize TO" is way different than "I apologize IF", but that was less of a big deal for me. I interpreted it as in fact putting the focus on the Others with less power - "Hey, I want to speak directly to you" - as much as one can do on the internet, without the benefit of eye contact.

I also want to say that I agree like 90% with this post, I think there are a LOT of bad apologies out there, and many people need to read this. But I felt it necessary to comment on this part because it's important that allies know that they can, in fact, do a good job. There are many people who could engage in these conversations extremely well (yes, of course, making mistakes, but apologizing appropriately) if they did not feel the bar was set unreasonably, unreachably high for some in this community. (Hence, why I'm anon right now, I don't want to look like I am "questioning" the basic principles behind a good apology that we all agree upon but disagreeing with their interpretation in this specific case).

- Anon2

Katie said...

This is a very good reminder - for all kinds of situations!

I had never really thought about the issues with talking about intent before. It's really important to bring up, but I think that there's a distinction to be made here. I know that whenever I'm offended/hurt by someone, their intent very much does matter - it's just not the only thing that matters. I think there's a difference between saying, "But I didn't mean to offend!" (derailing) versus "I didn't mean to offend, but..." (acknowledging that the injury did occur and taking responsibility for it).

berkeleyjess said...

Perhaps it wasn't clear in the post, so let me reiterate it here.

I applaud Phil Plait for taking his critics seriously and addressing concerns by both editing the video, but also writing an explanation. I also thought it was great that he addressed the "Social Justice Warriors" pushback and said that it isn't for other people to say what is offensive to a marginalized group. That was a great message.

To me this was an example of good being the enemy of great. He did a lot of good things with this apology, but there are things he could have done better. There were missed opportunities, and missteps.

I understand that he didn't intend to be offensive with the original joke. I also understand that he probably intended to genuinely apologize. Some commenters feel that he did genuinely apologize. I do not. The impact of his apology on me, was that he wasn't actually taking ownership of the mistake or explaining why it was problematic. I am calling him out on that. You don't have to agree with me, that's fine. But I suspect that Plait (as someone who wants to be an ally) would want to know this feedback, I know I would.

I terms of focusing on intentions (in response to Anon2). Sometimes it is helpful to explain why the mistake happened and what you were trying to do, and sometimes it isn't. It depends on the situation, and I don't think it's possible to generalize.

My criticism of Plait was that he was almost entirely focused on his intentions, and didn't at all explain why the joke was offensive, how it contributed to transphobia, and why people shouldn't make jokes like that.

I agree with commenders that sometimes it is necessary when trying to make amends to understand how the mistake happened and how intentions didn't line up with impact. My point was that we (as allies) need to be careful not to use this a form of derailment or minimizing the experience of others.

Anonymous said...

Jessica, thanks for recognizing that we might not agree, but still both have legitimate views to bring to the table! Just because someone disagrees with a specific part of a post doesn't mean we need to re-read, or that we don't "get it" or don't care or that we are "bad" allies / wolves in sheep's clothing (or just members of a marginalized community with a different opinion - we don't know who the anons are here). Having seen how quickly that can go wrong online, that's why I chose to remain anonymous in my comment, despite the fact that I agree with the heart of this post.

- Anon2

(I realize I was not the 2nd anon to comment, but didn't see that because the other comments were in the moderation queue, whoops)

Anonymous said...

"why the joke was offensive, how it contributed to transphobia, and why people shouldn't make jokes like that. "

I didn't see the joke, but I read Plait's apology. Can someone explain to me why the joke was transphobic?

Anonymous said...

To the anonymous asking "why the joke was transphobic?"

The key part from the apology is this quote: "In one part of the episode, I’m talking about how Venus is really pretty when you look at it from Earth, but up close, it’s an awful place. As I spoke about Venus being pretty, we put up a cute animation of Botticelli’s famous The Birth of Venus. But then, when I say Venus up close is awful (and say, "Yikes!"), we zoom in on the drawing and it turns out Venus has my face on it."

The problem was it was too close of an analogy to what a lot of transgender people might experience, when they present their gender one way and someone "finds out" that they are transgendered and is upset/disgusted. There is nothing "awful" about who that person is, but yet people who are not accepting of others' gender identities claim that they have been "deceived" in some way. This has even been used in defense against murder (called "trans panic").

I think it would be fair to say that Plait's original joke would have worked if he had used Michelangelo's David instead of Botticelli's Venus. I'm curious if others agree with that characterization or not.

I also kind of struggled to articulate the answer to the question, do others have a better way to explain it?

- Anon2

Anonymous Coward said...

This critique condescends to say "pretty good for a bigot, but not good enough for me." I am going to guess that Kirkpatrick might defend herself by saying "but that's not what I intended, that's not what I said." Although for my own part I have always believed that intention matters, I have been assured that intention actually is irrelevant and I have been mistaken in my belief otherwise. This is the message that *I* received.

I wasted three hours today trying to respond to this critique, writing and deleting. I submitted a comment, then submitted an immediate follow-up asking the moderator to cancel my first entry because I couldn't bear the thought of the response that I anticipated, fairly or not. I am so completely upset by this, it's just flattening me. I have asked a transgender person close to me to read Plait's original post and then this critique, but they have not gotten back to me (probably because they have a life and are not an astronomer). And I have, just now, thrown out the fact that someone close to me is transgender, in the hope that I can be granted provisional status as a good person because of the association. Why should I have to trade on authority that way? It's pathetic. The fact is that, regardless of claims about how intention doesn't matter, intention DOES matter, a lot -- especially the intention that a reader imputes to a writer while reading the written word. So, either I am a damnable liar, or I am an ally whose words should be taken on good faith. The reader's impression of my intention makes a big difference in how to read what I say, doesn't it?

I really think Kirkpatrick should have made the effort to contact Plait, person to person, before delivering a stinging critique of his failures as a writer and as a person. There could have been a lot more light, and less heat, if this had started from a dialogue between the critic and the criticized. Astronomy is a tiny field, and we pretty much all know each other or have friends in common. I have never met Jessica Kirkpatrick (I think! I am bad with remembering first through tenth encounters), but I am certain that we have friends in common. Which means that anything I say here has the potential to destroy personal relationships that I value, creating much trepidation. It's not like I have so many friends that I can afford to rebuff some. Publicly critiquing a fellow astronomer in print is not a quiet little matter that hurts no one. You are criticizing an actual person who is personally known to a lot of readers. We're all just people. Including Phil Plait.

berkeleyjess said...

Dear AC -- Thanks for the suggestion to contact Plait directly. Ultimately the goal of writing this was not to affect change in Plait. My goal was to make readers (and myself) think about how to best approach making amends for mistakes. I used his apology as an illustrative example because it was a recent event. But yes, if the goal was to change Plait's behavior, then sure, contacting him directly would have been an option.

I could have also -- and perhaps it would have been more effective considering how many upset comments there are -- used one of my own mistakes and bad handling of an apology to illustrate my points. Ultimately, I thought that would be both less interesting to readers, and take too much of a backstory to include in the post.

This isn't about Plait. This is about how to be a better ally. I suspect people's defensiveness of Plait is really defensiveness of their own mistakes that they've made in apologizing in less-than-ideal-ways. I've clearly struck a nerve, which is good. That means people are thinking and perhaps they will therefore be better at apologizing in the future.

If Phil Plait did read this, and was hurt by it, I am happy to talk with him about it, and I encourage him to reach out to me.

Anonymous said...

Can there really be a unique precise good way of apologising? All these attempts of telling people they don't think the right way feel extremely bigoted to me. You have your way of doing things, you can follow whatever detailed instructions you like, fine, do as you like! But why on Earth would you impose it to others? What can make you think you and a few others own "the only right way of thinking"? This is a real question I've asking myself more and more after all the recent discussions in astronomy. It's puzzling me.

Anonymous said...

Umpteenth Anonymous Commenter here:

It's a bit rich for you to say, "This isn't about Plait." You made it about him. I thought Phil Plait made a gracious, unconditional apology for a slight he did not intend, one that obviously pained him. It mattered that he explained his intent. His explanation was not a substitute for the apology.

I was dismayed to see his apology picked apart in the apparent quest to be The One True Ally. Commentary like this is a gift to those who sneer at "political correctness".

Since you found Phil Plait's apology wanting, please give us the complete text of what he should have said, so that we may learn from this Platonic ideal.

berkeleyjess said...

It makes me really happy that this piece has sparked so much thought provoking discussion!

Ultimately, these are suggestions that I compiled based on reading about the topic (see additional reading) and my own experience with making mistakes and apologizing. If these suggestions don't resonate or you don't agree, then don't follow them. If some of the suggestions do resonate and others don't, then take what you like and leave the rest.

My hope is that next time, when readers mess-up, they will have thought a little bit more about the process of apologizing. They will have a better understanding of the effect that being defensive, focusing on intent, non-apologizing, and tone-policing can have on the hurt person. That perhaps they will have a better outcome from the apology than they would have had otherwise.

Unknown said...

When I read the original blog post I had no idea what Phil Plait had done, and was shocked that he made a transphobic joke in Bad Astronomy. After reading the comment on this blog that explained his transgression, I realized he did not make a transphobic joke at all. He made a self depricating joke. That is it. One has to take a great leap to turn this joke into a transphobic joke. There are so many cases of real offense and really insincere apologies that I am left puzzled as to why the author singled out Plait for this piece. I find the premise of this post thoughtful and useful, but am now very disappointed that it was inspired by such a non-event.

Laura Peticolas said...

Thank you for your post and sharing your learning, Jessica. I really appreciate it! I found the most effective part of your article was how you shared your own learning in this area. It would be wonderful if you found more examples of when things are done well and what you learn from those things. Articles you write with that in mind would be really helpful to me. Thanks again!