Three Levels of “I’m Sorry”

Kali-ra and Tani-ro:

I had a bit of insight come to mind during a recent conversation about Mike Krahulik’s recent tone-deaf comments about transgendered people (do read the comments; they flesh out the story beyond what the author included). There are three kinds or levels of “I’m sorry,” and one’s opinion of public-figure gaffes like this one has much to do with what level of apology we consider sufficient.

“I’m sorry you feel that way.” This level expresses sympathy or polite condolence, not contrition. It acknowledges that the other person is hurt or upset, but doesn’t say the speaker caused that hurt. Depending on how and when it’s delivered, it could be a genuine display of empathy: the “I’m sorry, baby” you might say when a loved one suffers a mishap you had nothing to do with. Or it could ring insincere, implying that the person chose to feel offended and it’s no responsibility of the speaker’s. In any case, this is a “sorry” but not an apology. Generally speaking, only people deeply preferential to the speaker over the aggrieved party (“He said he’s sorry, what more do you want?”) consider this sufficient in cases like Krahulik’s.

“I’m sorry I hurt you.” This is a true apology. The speaker accepts that his action caused harm. It frequently comes with a denial of intention like “I didn’t mean to offend.” It comes from genuine emotion: shock, confusion, shame, regret, that one’s actions caused suffering. There may be hope that behavior will change, in the sense that the speaker may be more careful in the future. This is the level I see Krahulik at in this instance, and it’s commendable that the Penny Arcade guys now tend to get this far instead of just the first level. In most situations it’d be enough, even. But in matters where the apologizing party is an influential public figure, or has a track record of similar missteps, or the topic bears on sensitive issues with impact on human safety–all of which are the case here–the hurt party may wish to see a deeper “sorry.”

“I’m sorry. I was wrong. I know better now.” This is the level of sorry that I and similar critics hold out for, whether in hope or anger: apology that admits moral fault and is transformative. At the second level, the speaker’s admission of guilt extends to such foibles as carelessness or lack of tact, the harm done as much accident as error. But here, the person recognizes that their ignorance, mistaken ideas, or unjust choices have led them astray from the truth. Now that they’ve come to understand that truth, it’s hard even to imagine making the same mistake again. The whole basis on which they did the hurtful act has gone away. In Krahulik’s case, this might look something like “I now know the difference between sex and gender, and understand that ‘woman’ refers to the latter rather than the former. I see why it’s so important to people that I get this right, and will approach the topic with more respect from now on.” It’s a lot to ask! But given the power of Krahulik’s platform, the PA track record, and the harsh reality of violence against transgendered people, this is the only level of apology that would repair my opinion of the situation or the people involved. I suspect I’m not the only one.

Note that reparations like Krahulik’s $20,000 donation to the Trevor Project don’t elevate the level of the apology in the sense I describe here. It can happen, or not, at any given level, as a separate axis. A sincere first-level sorry might include a kind gesture to cheer the person up; an insincere first-level sorry could come with a bribe to try to silence the aggrieved party. Second-level sorries’ reparations, like Krahulik’s, act as mitigation or repayment for harm done. The third level includes that restitution aspect, but additionally demonstrates the apologizer’s new understanding and willingness to change. In any case, it doesn’t change the basic kind of apology.

Hopefully that makes things clearer to folks who are puzzled or frustrated by critics’ feelings that apologies to date have been insufficient. I myself wasn’t able to quite pin down why I felt that way until I thought it through like this. Hopefully it’ll help me better articulate these things in further conversation about this and future incidents!


Idioms of Collaboration

Kithia Verdon:

I’m currently involved in a game design collaboration with two dear friends of mine. This is a fantastic thing! I frequently feel the longing to team up with someone on a creative endeavor, yearning back to the glory days of collaborative writing on AOL’s Interactive Fiction forums or my own Galaxy Corps forum. It’s great to have the chance to do something along those lines again.

I’m grappling with a bit of culture shock, though. My approach to collaboration, my very mental model of what collaboration is, doesn’t quite click with the way the other two-thirds of the operation think about things. Creative differences, amirite? It’s not an insurmountable thing; it’s not going to doom the project or force me to drop out. But it does lead to weird moments of dissonance, a Twilight Zone episode about game design.

The short version: I want to go all scrummy with it, taking each other’s material and editing at will, tinkering and exchanging ideas uninhibited. The rest of the crew tends to more a sense of ownership, where if you make a thing, the others need to ask permission before adding to or changing it.

To an extent I can understand the feeling. I used to be that way about my writing; back in the Galaxy Corps days I remember quashing a couple of proposed plot threads because they interfered with my vision for the story as a whole. Today I regret that, and think the project suffered for it. As you might surmise from my posts on copyright, I’ve grown out of permission culture as a whole. The way I now see it, when I scribble some thought and let it loose in the wild, it’s yours as much as it is mine. You want to repost it and change it to express the exact opposite idea of what I originally wrote? Awesome, that’s some frickin’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies coolness there. You want to put it into a book and sell it for moneys? Sweet, more people get to read a thing I wrote!

I acknowledge of course that this attitude doesn’t work well at all stages of a creative project. If we were in the home stretch, heavily playtested, the text polished and copy-edited (especially if laid out), tearing out or fiddling with things sans careful change control would be a sure-fire way to block your project from ever going out the door. But right now, when we’re still revising core ideas about the game…

It’s like this. I picture this phase of creative collaboration like people sitting around a sandbox full of wet clay. Each person’s sculpting as the feeling strikes them, looking at what the others are doing and taking inspiration from it, working together to make a whole cityscape. Sometimes somebody stops by to add water to the mixture to keep things from drying out, and you have to deal with the fact that can mess with your nascent sculpture in the process. And sometimes you look across at your neighbor’s thing and go, “ooh, what if you added something like this here?” and just tack on a gob of clay as a balcony or spire or whatever to their structure. Maybe their eyes light up and they go “Yeah!” Maybe they make a face and take your addition back off, saying “eh, I don’t think so,” and have to repair the damage, but it’s all part of the fun.

Whereas the hands-off perspective feels to me like making a jigsaw puzzle all backward. Instead of painting the picture and then carving it up, you cut a blank board into pieces, hand them to different people, and start painting on the individual bits, maintaining a careful dialogue along the way where you try to make sure each person’s bits are going to line up correctly with the rest when it all comes back together. Exhausting!

It’ll turn out all right in the end, I’m sure. But along the way, I have to keep reminding myself what world I’m in. “Why don’t I have edit access to this file? Oh, right, that’s NN’s thing.” “Why are we waiting around on this edit we all agreed to? Oh, right, I started this class design so I have to finalize everything.” Tch!