The Perfect Apology? Maybe Not.

Last week, the actor Jason Alexander made a joke at the expense of people who are gay on Craig Ferguson’s The Late Late Show on CBS.  He referred to the sport of cricket as “gay”, and compared it to baseball, which he referred to as more manly. 

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Jason Alexander demonstrates how “gay” a cricket pitch looks on The Late Late Show.  Photo: The  Late Late show/CBS/YouTube.

At first he didn’t see anything wrong with that joke, but later he came to understand how it equated gay men with effeminate behavior.  And more importantly, he recognized that building his joke on a pejorative stereotype was contributing to the conditions that lead to ostracism, alienation, and even violence for so many people who are gay.  Consequently, he issued a heartfelt, detailed apology, which was generally well received.  I’ve seen many comments online that say things like, “Now that’s how you apologize!”

The problem is that today, as I write this, young men and women whose behaviors, choices or attitudes are not deemed “man enough” or “normal” are being subjected to all kinds of abuse from verbal to physical to societal. They are being demeaned and threatened because they don’t fit the group’s idea of what a “real man” or a “real woman” are supposed to look like, act like and feel like. 
For these people, my building a joke upon the premise I did added to the pejorative stereotype that they are forced to deal with everyday. It is at the very heart of this whole ugly world of bullying that has been getting rightful and overdue attention in the media. And with my well-intentioned comedy bit, I played right into those hurtful assumptions and diminishments.

What I love about this apology is that he took the criticisms he got about his joke to heart, even though he didn’t think they were valid at first, and he really tried to understand where they were coming from.  Then when he was able to understand how he had offended people, and contributed to the problem of discrimination against people who are gay, he explained it to others.  It’s so rare to see even the first piece of that, and delightful to see it coupled with the second.  Yay Jason!  I hope we can all learn something about how to own up to our mistakes from your example in this situation.

And yet . . . there is something about his apology that still rubs me wrong.  Toward the end he says:

To the extent that these jokes made anyone feel even more isolated or misunderstood or just plain hurt – please know that was not my intention, at all or ever. I hope we will someday live in a society where we are so accepting of each other that we can all laugh at jokes like these and know that there is no malice or diminishment intended.

So, his making fun of effeminate behavior involved no intended diminishment?  It seems to me that the entire basis of the humor was the fact that appearing effeminate is undesirable.  Or am I somehow missing the real joke underneath that? 

This smacks a bit too much of the all too common non-apology that goes something like, “I apologize to anyone who may have been hurt by my statements.  I did not intend to offend anyone.”  See, for example, Geraldo Rivera, Rush Limbaugh, or Charlie Sheen.  Which sounds like an apology, but carefully avoids acknowledging that there was anything wrong with what the “apologizer” did.  It’s the apologizee that has the problem, being apparently to thin skinned, or irrational. 

What do you think?  Am I missing a real joke that truly doesn’t intend to diminish anyone?  Or is Jason just a hair shy of the perfect apology that he’s getting so much credit for?

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Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado.  She has a deep passion for helping survivors of sexual violence.