On Ableism and Apologies

Black and white photo of a desk. The letters �SORRY� have been individually cut out and placed in the middle. There is a pair of scissors, paper scraps, a laptop, and a book around the letters.
Photo by alleksana from Pexels
March 31, 2021
Robin Eastman

Who among us doesn’t cringe when we think of things we’ve said in the past? And all the more so when it’s in writing. On the internet. Forever.

So why are we often so reluctant to listen when people tell us we are saying something cringy now, when we have an opportunity to apologize and correct course?

I see two major reasons: we don’t model apologies well and we reward being right over showing growth.

I’m going to give an example from an exchange in the comments on a Facebook post. I know, never read the comments. But the truth is that I have been enriched many times by reading the comments. Sometimes they are funny or even joyous. Sometimes they add a perspective I hadn’t been aware of. Sometimes they help me articulate my thoughts and beliefs better. I do not believe our world is better when communication is from the few to the many, without dialogue and interaction. I believe in reading the comments, I’m just not always glad I did.

A friend of mine posted an article. Some people really identified with the article and some people took issue with it. The topic doesn’t really matter, this interaction could come from just about any starting point. In this particular comment thread, someone used really ableist language. I won’t quote them directly, but if you aren’t familiar with ableism, here’s an intro. Chances are, you use ableist language a lot. It’s baked so deeply into English that until you start examining it, you don’t even realize that an enormous number of insults are related to disabilities: “ret*rded,” “l*me,” “cr*zy,” “st*pid,” “Are you bl*nd?”

My brother, Bryan, who is one of my all time favorite humans, and someone who struggles with internalized ableism, called the commenter out (let’s call him Will) for ableist language. Will’s response was, “I wish you the best in your journeys.” He went on to say “I withdrew from the comment stream because it was diverging into a fight rather than a discussion because we seemed to be talking past one another. Once a social media thread goes that way, it is difficult to come back.”

This struck me as interesting, not because I think Will is an especially terrible person, but because he was so normal, even thoughtful, in his response, while still not doing a very simple thing that would have improved the discussion immensely.

Here’s my analysis of Will’s response:

And yet, even though I believe all these things to be true, he did not apologize. I think that’s genuinely thought-provoking.

Let’s dig into this sentence, “Once a social media thread goes that way, it is difficult to come back.” Is this true? If so, why is this true? I think it is true, if a person who caused harm is someone who finds it difficult to apologize. I created this highly scientific chart,* based on numbers I made up, to explain the reasons people don’t apologize:

Pie chart: Reasons People Don’t Apologize. Segments: They shouldn’t apologize, they are in the right (4%); Think they are in the right, but they aren’t (17%); Will apologize if the other person does first, (13%); Think they apologized when they said “I’m sorry you feel that way” (15%); Fear of looking weak (9%); Are secretly afraid they are bad people and if they apologize everyone will know (11%); They don’t know how (24%); Apologizing doesn’t occur to them (7%).

As you can see, there are many reasons people don’t apologize and most of them are bad.

I live with my brother. This means we’ve worked hard on our relationship and we’ve apologized to each other a lot. So I know from personal experience that Will could have gotten that conversation back on track really easily, if he’d offered an apology for his ableism. In the same situation, Bryan would have apologized. I know this, because I have called Bryan out in online comments (sometimes from a room away) and he apologized.

I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve overstepped in a comment and been called out. What I really wanted to do was explain why I wasn’t actually in the wrong and why I was still a good person. What I did was take a breath and apologize. Things deescalated quickly and we all went on with our days.

I’ve read a lot of backlash to “call out culture” and I disagree with most of it, even the measured critiques asking us to privately “call people in.” Part of my objection is that I think we need to do a lot more to normalize apologies. We need people to model saying sorry for harm caused immediately and easily. If you hurt me, I should be encouraged to say “ow,” you should be able to apologize, and we should all recognize that makes the world a better place. Without any of those pieces, we will keep committing the same harms over and over again.

If you are new to thinking about ableist language, this essay may be making you feel defensive right now. You might be identifying with Will and it might seem like I’m being mean or attacking him. That’s not what I’m trying to do. What I’m trying to do is offer you a skill that I believe is already in your toolbag, but will be easier for you to use if you plan ahead. I want you to be prepared the next time you say “that’s cr*zy!” To follow it up with, “I’m sorry.” I don’t think we will change our language overnight. I know it is hard to make the shift. I’m still training myself to say, “that’s wild!” instead.

Sometimes, it feels like no matter how hard we try, we will say something cringe-worthy. And that is probably true, but it doesn’t mean we can’t get better. Every time we grow and change, we are lessening the harm we cause. Every time we support each other, it is meaningful.

One final note: this essay is about apologizing after someone tells you you’ve said something that harms them or another person because they are part of a marginalized group. There are really valid reasons for people not to apologize in other situations (for example, women gender minorities and BIPOC folx do not need to apologize for taking up space in the world). There’s a lot more to unpack about apologies, but that’s for another day.

*It is not scientific. That is a joke. Jokes are funnier when you explain them, like I’m doing now. Sorry I wasted so much of your time on this meaningless footnote. (I’m not really sorry, I just don’t want to end up in the wrong part of my own infographic. You could tell, couldn’t you?)

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