Sometimes an apology doesn’t help

[UPDATE: Just to be clear, I posted this in full consultation with Carrie Jenkins and with her approval. I would never have dreamed of posting it otherwise.]

[FURTHER UPDATE: Brian Leiter is now claiming publicly on his blog that Carrie ‘threatened’ him and that his tweet to her was in response to a tweet she sent to him (which is demonstrably false – she tweeted at Tim Crane and never once made any reference to Brian Leiter.) This makes the discussion below even more salient.]

In an update to the post I’m not linking to, Brian Leiter mentions that he sent the following email to Carrie Jenkins:

Dear Carrie: Laurie Paul and Heidi Lockwood tell me you were upset by the Twitter exchange from the other day. I am genuinely sorry for upsetting you, it was, truly, the opposite of my intention. May I please try to explain what I thought was going on?

Tim Crane and I had a series of back-and-forths on Twitter about the contested Nietzsche review, which he had commissioned for TLS. He needled me, and I needled back. I posted his comment in defense of the review on my Nietzsche blog, and he quipped that I would now call him a charlatan (I told him he was only a charlatan when it came to wine expertise in a separate tweet). You weighed in with a tweet that I took to mean, “Don’t worry, Brian calls lots of people charlatans, including me.” I thought that was funny and a friendly gesture, so I replied to say, “Well, I did once call you a sanctimonious arse, but never a charlatan, and in any case, I don’t dislike you and know there are lots of good things about you.” Unfortunately, that’s more than 140 characters.

Now as you know several months ago I did send you an intemperate e-mail, which I regret sending, but it was in response to something you had done which really upset me. I read your “pledge” back then (as did Catarina at NewApps, from whom I learned about it) as directed at me and as saying: “I am not going to treat Brian Leiter as a normal member of the profession.” I found that very offensive at the time. I should have cooled off for 24 hours, but instead I sent you an intemperate e-mail. I learned you then put it into public circulation, so I took that to be the context of the tweet exchange. Part of what I wanted to convey with the tweet exchange was only that I wasn’t annoyed about that earlier incident, and I took the fact that you tweeted what you did to mean you weren’t either.

I have spoken to Carrie at length about this email. It did not make things better for her. In fact, for quite understandable reasons, it made them worse.

After the July email Carrie received counseling during which she was advised very strongly that, in order to recover from the incident, she should under no circumstances enter into any further correspondence with Leiter. She attempted to comply by ensuring emails to her from his address were filtered so they would not appear in her inbox.

However, Leiter posted his message to her to the Facebook page of a mutual friend, making it impossible for her to avoid contact with him as she was attempting. Although she did not read it when it appeared (in her best attempt to follow her counselor’s advice), many friends saw it and discussed it with her, so she could not ignore its contents or avoid the further harms caused by them, which are described below.

In Leiter’s message, no awareness is evinced of the serious harm that has been caused to Carrie over the months since July. Hence there is no acknowledgement of responsibility for this harm and no apology for it. There is no attempt on Leiter’s part, in this message or anywhere else, to discover how she was affected by the events during and since July, or even why she was “upset” by the September tweet.

In addition to harm caused by the July email and September tweet, Carrie had been in a state of elevated anxiety in the meantime because of various of Leiter’s public comments on his blog and Twitter feed about “meaningless pledges”, how “fortunate” it is that other philosophers did not take the “kindness” pledge, how “funny” the FP post supporting her pledge post was, and so on.

The message posted to a friend’s facebook page, however, focuses on explanations of Leiter’s own perspectives and views.There is no apology for anything in the message except the fact that Carrie may have been “upset” by the September tweet.

Likewise, there are no regrets for anything expressed except for Leiter’s “intemperateness” in sending the July email. If at any point Leiter indeed regretted sending that email, he could at any point have written to Carrie to apologize and retract his remarks, to enquire as to whether any harm had been done, and to ask whether he could do anything that would help to put that harm right. None of the above has happened. (She has now checked through her previously filtered email messages to confirm this.)

Similarly, if Leiter genuinely wished to make a plausible apology for upsetting Carrie with the September tweet, he might have enquired how he might remedy the upset caused. But even the most minimal and obvious of remedies, taking down the tweet in question, is not offered or even considered in Leiter’s message. Indeed, at the time of writing (24 September) the tweet is still live and public on Leiter’s Twitter feed. It is therefore difficult for Carrie to feel that even the minimal apology offered consists in a genuine attempt to alleviate any of the damage done.

Instead of making an effort to understand Carrie’s experience of what has happened, the apology focuses primarily on Leiter himself, on his perspective and interpretations, and on claims about his intent. His intent, and how events were perceived and interpreted by him, does not determine the effects of his actions.

Moreover, the explanations proffered have been disturbing to Carrie and caused her further distress. From Leiter’s message it is clear that both on the occasion of the July email and the occasion of the September tweet, Leiter assumed that she was talking about him despite having made no mention of him anywhere on either occasion, nor having been in any prior contact with him at either time.

Carrie’s July blog post is written in very general terms. Many philosophers do not always behave in the ways she describes in that post, including, as she explicitly notes in the post, herself.

Carrie’s tweet to Tim Crane was to Tim Crane, and was about how philosophers being called ‘charlatan’ is nothing unusual. Moreover, though he offered plenty of insults to her, Leiter never once called Carrie a charlatan, making it particularly odd that he interpreted Carrie’s tweet as being somehow about him.

Carrie finds it very unsettling – scary, even – that Leiter assumed she was talking about him both times. It has made her afraid to post public content to the internet in future, for fear of similar interpretation, leading to similar results.

Another disturbing element of the message is that Leiter claims that Carrie put his July email to her into “public circulation”. In fact, she shared the email privately with some friends, via email and Facebook (on a private thread), because she was in need of their help and support in understanding and processing something very frightening that had happened to her. One of her friends then violated her trust and posted the email to the comments section of a blog. Thus the email was put into public circulation without her knowledge and without her consent, in a violation of her trust and privacy at a time when she was already scared and vulnerable.

Carrie was additionally disturbed to learn that Leiter interpreted her September tweet to Tim Crane as friendly to him (Leiter), and as treating the July incident in a light-hearted manner. This suggested that what for her had been a frightening and traumatic occurrence was something Leiter considered a fitting subject for light-hearted Twitter exchanges.

She was also upset by Leiter’s suggestion in his message that he used his own tweet to convey to her that he “wasn’t annoyed” by the earlier incident. She does not think he had a reason to be “annoyed” with her in connection with her post. And as mentioned above, had he genuinely wished to to convey any such thing to her, he could have contacted her at any time since his July email. Why would Leiter attempt a reconciliation using a public forum in which he is limited to 140 characters and then spend 18 of those characters making public his earlier insult and another 9 of them tutting at her as if she were a child?

I don’t dispute that Brian Leiter attempted to apologize to Carrie. But not all apologies are created equal. And sometimes, apologies only make things worse.

37 thoughts on “Sometimes an apology doesn’t help

  1. Seems like someone needs to give a bit of advice: When you find yourself deep in a hole you yourself have created, STOP DIGGING.

  2. (Once again!) For the record, I don’t know what Leiter is talking about when he says that I was the one who told him about Carrie’s post. I was corresponding with him around that time on his attacks on Carolyn Jennings, and there is nothing in that correspondence referring to Carrie’s post, or to Carrie in general for that matter (I went back to it and checked). I have no idea what he has in mind. I’ve asked him to clarify in comments at a post by Heidi Lockwood on FB, but received no reply. (Not that it matters much, but for the record.)

  3. If you, Magical Ersatz, in any way intend to be other than an ersatz supporter or friend to Carrie, then unless Carie is asking you to continue in your public displays of support, you might consider refraining from further publicizing this series of events along with Carrie’s erstwhile private affairs (pointing out that she’s in counseling, etc.) and let her heal in private while offering support to her in private. Were I in Carrie’s position I am sure I would be mortified to have all of this publicized so extensively and to have strangers weighing in–so to Carrie, I am sorry to be a stranger weighing in BUT NONE OF THESE PEOPLE SEEM TO HAVE ANY SENSE (why yes, those caps ARE to be read as expressing exasperation and admonishment). To borrow your language, Magical, “But not all [attempts to help] are created equal. And sometimes, [attempts to help] only make things worse.”

  4. Thank you magicalersatz for all your help, which is welcome and has been checked with me in advance. It is just too much for me right now to explain everything myself in so many fora. This support is invaluable to me.

  5. Thanks, Carrie. ;-)

    Pat, yes of course I had Carrie’s approval before I posted this. I never would’ve posted it without that.

  6. I believe Eleanor trolled here not too long ago (I may be mistaken). I imagine this is another attempt. I don’t think there’s any need to boycott U of C in general.

  7. Well said, grad. Just to be clear: I don’t think anyone involved I’m this thinks we ought to boycott U Chicago!

  8. oh. i guess i didn’t think a boycott of chicago was beyond the pale (i’m the anon who posted in response to eleanor)… But I admittedly haven’t thought it through, so I’m willing to defer to those who have considered this a bit more. so, fine, let’s bracket that thought.

    But what of a boycott of *leiter reports*? I would have thought this would be a pretty attractive and obvious move…

  9. BL’s assumption that the “charlatan” comment was clearly about him in particular makes a certain amount of sense, if BL thinks of himself as the only (or at least the most noticeable/impactful/etc.) professional philosopher going around calling other professional philosophers “charlatans” as a matter of course. One would think this realization would recommend a different course of action than the one he seems to have chosen…

  10. It’s not that these kinds of people or those at Boulder, CO are new in the Philosophical Academic world. It’s not even that they are only just now being discovered. It is that institutions, academics, men and women are no longer willing to stand by while this goes on. “In the end what will hurt the most is not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” MLKJr. Friends are no longer staying silent. It’s just awful that good people are suffering the collateral damage. #Solidarity Carrie.

  11. So, first, this is a terrible story and I’m very sorry that Carrie Jenkins ended up going through this crap.

    Second, the one bit I find encouraging is that it seems like the profession is standing up against this. Like with the McGinn case, I’m pleasantly stunned to see to collective action from all levels in the right direction.

  12. I notice that a critical, but in my judgment nevertheless fairly substantive, comment (not one written by me, incidentally) was just deleted, and I am curious as to why–I would quote it to indicate which one, but of course cannot in the given circumstances. Although I didn’t personally find any of it offensive enough to merit even partial censorship (let alone removing the post entirely), I think it would be better to try to err more on the side of leaving such comments up than this blog tends to do–especially since the comment in question seemed quite a bit more substantive than most of the comments above.

    More generally, I’m somewhat concerned that this blog has a tendency to conflate dissenting comments with inappropriate comments, functionally creating a ‘safe space’ that is in fact only safe for the airing of certain viewpoints (cf. Eleanor at 17)–namely those that do not depart too far from the bloggers’ own positions. Of course, it’s a valuable function to provide a forum for the representation of philosophical viewpoints that are often given inadequate attention (or even totally disregarded) by the professional ‘mainstream’, so I don’t want to be too critical. But I do think it’s a little disingenuous to represent this site as if it were actually providing a space where people with widely different views can engage in intelligent and open critical debate. Again, I don’t think this is the end of the world–indeed, I think it’s how all intellectual communities actually operate. But a little more self-awareness on this front might be beneficial to all parties.

  13. self-edit: *Although I didn’t personally find any of it offensive enough to merit even partial censorship (let alone removing the post entirely), I understand that some of it might have been perceived to violate the blog’s comments policy (I am curious as to which parts, though..), but nevertheless think that it the blog might benefit from trying to extract the valuable parts of such comments, rather than dismissing them wholesale…

    I stand by the rest

  14. anonymaster, it seems obvious to me that part of the point of this post is that it doesn’t matter how he meant it.

    Anon, we don’t in general owe explanations for why we delete comments. It’s our blog. We delete the comments we think are inappropriate. Don’t like it? That’s fine. Go comment somewhere else. But ‘censorship’ is a little strong, don’t you think?

    In this case, I deleted the comment because it made light of someone’s self-reported emotional distress. That’s not something I’m going to allow. You may disagree with this moderating decision, so let me register being fine with that to pre-empt further discussion.

  15. Anon et al, i looked at the deleted comments. I think we are in a very special context, where there is a real chance that the comment could traumatise a vulnerable person even though it wasn’t especially nasty.

    We may not understand why someone finds something very traumatic, but in fact the statistics for those who get systematic bullying are VERY dim. We’re taking suicide, heart disease, possibly cancer, etc.

    I in fact know someone who can be extremely nasty. A former friend of hers maintains she is evil. That may seem extreme, but for some people the damage done by nastiness can be severe. We all need to be careful.

  16. Just to add to that, BL is clearly an asshole and in the wrong. His tweet and apology seemed good-natured though. And while CIJ has every right to feel harmed and seek therapy, I don’t think we should infer from that that the original email is something that would be reasonably expected to cause such harm and therapy, especially since part of the premise of her post was that now she is professionally secure she will make sure to go after people who are not civil without having to fear the consequences.

  17. Magicalersatz, I didn’t mean to offer an explanation of the deletion. I wanted to stress something that isn’t obvious to everyone. Namely, one might fail to understand a traumatic reaction even though one might have that reaction too. I think having one’s home broken into is a good example. People who experience that may have a sense of personal violation that may be beyond the ability of many to imagine it.

  18. “I don’t think we should infer from that that the original email is something that would be reasonably expected to cause such harm and therapy”

    What do you mean by ‘reasonably expected’ here, anonymaster? And on what evidence are you arriving at your judgement that Carrie’s reaction was not what would be ‘reasonably expected’? Is there some playbook by which people are supposed to respond to this kind of thing? Are there rules? (No one told me there were rules!)

    Please, everyone, let’s have no more comments about the ‘reasonableness’ or otherwise of Carrie’s reaction. Thanks.

  19. Thanks both of you for the explanations–I agree that you don’t ‘owe’ them, so I really do appreciate it. I take your point, Anne, about the special context operative here, and I think the analogy to the experience of having your home broken is worth mulling over. And I correspondingly understand why it can seem like a bad idea to allow any questioning the ‘reasonableness’ (or ‘appropriateness’, or ‘aptness’, or etc.) of someone’s reaction. That said, I ultimately don’t think that it’s tenable to maintain that all reactions are created equal: context matters; and part of context is the nature of the scenario that someone is reacting to. Of course, there’s no ‘playbook’, like you say. But I don’t think it follows from this that it’s unfair, imprudent, or otherwise illegitimate, when thinking about situations like this, to consider all sides of the issue–including the relationship between the nature of the deed and the response thereto. (I notice that you just deleted Trixie’s comment as well, presumably because it involved a similar point. So I expect you’ll delete this as well–and yes, magicalersatz, I would call this censorship.) Thanks again.

  20. E.g. there might be a relevant difference between having a feeling of personal violation in response to having your home broken into and having the same feeling in response to having someone leave their dog’s poop on your lawn…(I am NOT saying that Carrie’s situation is like the latter rather than the former, or that it’s always appropriate to question the ‘validity’ of someone’s response. I AM saying that it seems misguided to pretend that a case like this OBVIOUSLY falls in the class of situations where such questioning is inappropriate.)

  21. Anon. In a nutshell, the vulnerability of Leiter’s targets to Leiter’s tactics is not the issue. Leiter’s tactics are the issue. Whether one is vulnerable to Leiter’s conduct, or not, is irrelevant to the question of whether Leiter’s conduct is appropriate. It’s not.

  22. Much of Leiter’s conduct is inappropriate, full stop. But this post is claiming that Leiter’s APOLOGY was itself totally ill-conceived and inappropriate–on this point, I think there is plenty of room for reasonable disagreement.

  23. if you think it’s misguided to even focus on Leiter’s apology, given the impropriety of his previous conduct (which I think is a fair thing to maintain), then I’d take issue with the premise of the original post above, not with critical responses to it per se

  24. Anon, you say ” this post is claiming that Leiter’s APOLOGY was itself totally ill-conceived and inappropriate.” That’s not what the post says. The post describes ways in which the apology was both odd and inadequate (apologizing for ‘upsetting’ Carrie, but not for having sent the email or published the tweet). It also describes ways in which the apology had a negative effect on Carrie – including increasing her sense that Brian Leiter unnvervingly takes the things she says online to be about him, even when they’re not. (Which is something that, if Brian Leiter was doing to you, I’d bet you’d find uncomfortable.) The point of the post is that apologies don’t always make things better, and we can’t always respond in a case like this with “But he apologized!” Sometimes apologies, especially when they are not handled carefully and with consideration of the feelings of the person being apologized to, can contribute to rather than redress harm. That’s the point. That’s why the post is up.

    And with that, I’m going to close comments, because I’m tired.

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