Never Complain and Never Explain

12 Aug

Recently, the School Superintendent of Newton MA, where I reside and my son attends high school, was found to have plagiarized portions of his recent commencement speeches. For this, as you will; lapse in judgment or devious wrongdoing, he was fined $5000 and in short order issued a public apology. The jury is out about the appropriateness of his chastisement with a number of parties unsatisfied including the Newton Teacher’s Association who wrote:

In your statement, you characterize what happened as a “mistake, And even though you say what you “should” have done, you use indirect language . . . You never call what you did plagiarism, and you don’t apologize. The facts tell a different story,…You lifted not only words and phrases from Deval Patrick’s speech, but also its main idea, and you express both the words and the idea as if they were your own. There simply is no question about it: that is plagiarism

Sorry About That by Edward Battistella

Sorry About That by Edward Battistella

This little local tempest is probably played out manifold times with some episodes rising to the status of major news cycle scandal and all the tawdriness that accompanies such. In recent yearsMartha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, Bill Clinton, Mel Gibson, Sen. Bob Packwood, Mark Sandford, Joe Biden (Biden might require a pamphlet to document his various apologies) and numerous corporations have found it in their interests to make mia culpas. In my view it is possible to view the public apology as a new literary genre. Linguist Edwin L. Battistella’s Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology(Oxford University Press) is certainly an engaging survey of noteworthy recent expressions of guilty sorrow (justifications) mentioning fifty standouts . Additionally, Battistella attends to discerning the language of sincere apologies (need it be pointed out that not all apologies are heart felt?)

Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter

Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter

This exegesis of the notion of public apology puts me in mind of Charles Baxter‘s incisive essay Dysfunctional Narrative: or “Mistakes Were Made” from his non-pareil essay collection Burning Down the House (Graywolf). Baxter draws a straight line from Richard Nixon’s diction to what he characterizes as ‘dysfunctional narrative’ stemming from faux apologies taking the form of “Mistakes were made…”

Charles Baxter [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Charles Baxter [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Lately, I have been possessed of a singularly unhappy idea: The greatest influence on American fiction in the last twenty years may have been the author of RN (Richard Nixon), not in the writing but in the public character.He is the inventor, for our purposes and for our time,of the concept of deniability.Deniability is an almost complete disavowal of intention in relation to bad consequences. A made up word, it reeks of the land filled landscape of lawyers and litigation and high school [What an image! RB}.Following Richard Nixon in influence on recent fiction would be two runners up, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Their administrations managed to achieve considerable notoriety for self righteousness, public befuddlement about facts, forgetfulness under oath and constant disavowals of political error and criminality culminating in the quasiconfessional passive-voice-mode sentence, “Mistakes were made.”

Of course, there is a countervailing opinion to the old saw that confession is good for the soul. Researcher Tyler G. Okimoto claims,

When you refuse to apologize, it actually makes you feel more empowered,” he said. “That power and control seems to translate into greater feelings of self-worth. Ironically,people who refused to apologize ended up with boosted feelings of integrity.

Currently reading The Next Life Will be Kinder by Howard Norman(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

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One Response to “Never Complain and Never Explain”

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  1. Our Man in Boston interview w/ Robert Birnbaum | Richard Hoffman - May 28, 2016

    […] Never Complain and Never ExplainIn “Charles Baxter” […]

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