How Apologies Work – Phil Plait Apologizes for Transphobic Comments

Remember my lessons for apology:

Lesson 1: When you screw up, and you will screw up, own it. Apologize. Try not to do it again.
Lesson 2: No one is entitled to have their apology accepted.
Lesson 3: On the other hand, one mistake (rather than a pattern of repeated bad behavior) can become an opportunity for dialogue and strengthening community, rather than sundering it.

Over the weekend, Phil Plait, the Slate columnist and well known public intellectual (as an astronomer), said something transphobic. Then he apologized. Here’s a key bit from the piece.

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.

I thought this was pretty funny, a bit of humor poking fun at me. So we OK’d it.
Well, it turns out that wasn’t so OK and funny with a lot of viewers. We got some comments that the joke was transphobic, making fun of transgender people.

 That’s why my editor had texted me. I called her, and she told me what had happened. 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. The good news is that 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.

Let me be clear: I apologize for myself and on behalf of the team to anyone offended by the joke. 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. That wasn’t at all the intent, and it didn’t occur to us it could be seen that way when we put it together. I hope you forgive us, and we’ll try to do better in the future.

So to clarify, the episode had a picture of Botticelli’s Venus, they zoomed in and said, “Oh no, it looks like Phil” (so like a man).

This is a pretty good apology. He doesn’t put the blame on people for feeling offended, but on himself for doing the wrong thing. He fixes it. He apologizes clearly. He does acknowledge intent – and I think intent matters. It’s not an excuse, but offensive speech by accident is NOT THE SAME as intentionally offensive speech.

In the disability community, for example, calling someone with Down syndome by the r-word is different than saying, “that TV show is so r……” Right? Intent matters. It’s not an excuse, but it is a sign of whether lesson 3 is appropriate, whether there’s a pathway towards restoring community. I’ve spoken to a few people in the trans community, they are good with Phil Plait, while clearly not speaking for everyone.

But the piece continues:

Unfortunately, there’s more. In the comments to the (re-uploaded) video, some people are complaining that we are under the thumb of the PC crowd, and the phrase “social justice warrior” is used derisively. Let me address those commenters now:

You’re wrong. First, it’s not up to you to decide what offends or does not offend a group of people you are not a part of. You may feel that this was not an offensive joke, and you are welcome to that opinion; certainly the joke wasn’t intended that way.

But what you don’t get to decide is what offends others, especially in a group you’re not a part of. You may think that offense is undeserved, or that they are overreacting. You have the right to think that, but you cannot dictate it to those others.

I love the “You’re wrong.” I write about this too – that you don’t get to decide what is or isn’t offensive, only if you care.

So good for Plait and Slate and everyone who has learned from this mistake. It’s good to have models of what apologies can look like and how they can work.

2 Replies to “How Apologies Work – Phil Plait Apologizes for Transphobic Comments”

  1. No Class Jack says:

    I'm not here to disagree with Plait's decision to alter his video, it's his work after all and he can do as he likes with it.
    I do wonder how -now that we've decided to sanitize and purge our culture of anything deemed (remotely) offensive to one group or another- we're going to decide when people have a legitimate grievance and when they do not. Why should person X's feeling of offense matter more than person Y's? Are we going to let our own personal ideologies decide that? That would be awfully arbitrary and prone to exclusionary behavior as most of us are in no hurry to grant legitimacy to claims of offense by groups or individuals we perceive as ideological opponents or antagonists. I have no problem with an individual altering or removing an act of speech/expression if they receive criticism, reflect on it and find themselves in agreement with the criticism. I do wonder how, in this brave new world, we're going to decide who to dogpile on social media and brand a bigot and an outcast and who we will defend and champion when their acts of speech/expression draw the ire of one group or another.

    1. David Perry says:

      Being sensitive to the needs of others is neither sanitizing or purging. It's good human behavior. I am much more concerned about the historically and currently marginalized than by any consequences of asking people to be more polite, and pointing it out when they are not.

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