Global University Rankings & Toilets

Global University Rankings are like comparing potatoes to coco-yam or peaches to agbalumo (White Star Apple)

I remember arriving at Lancaster University to start my Master’s Degree. Everywhere I turned, there was a toilet, running water in the toilet, toilets supplied with tissues, doors that closed and all the works. I am sure that I was never 5 yards away from a functioning toilet. If I was not careful, I was more likely to end up in a toilet than in my seminar room. Bowland North probably has as many toilets as it has seminar rooms. This was far removed from my undergraduate experience in Nigeria. On our very massive campus, there were about 8 functioning toilets for the whole student body. 4 for the guys, 4 for the gals. Never let it be said that OAU Ife did not promote gender equality. These toilets were only functioning when there was running water. That was about twice a day. At about 9am in the morning, and 2pm in the afternoon. At other times, you had to be the master of your body. Woe betide you if your body won that contest. We had a beautiful campus (in my humble and unbiased opinion, the most beautiful campus in the world), absolutely brilliant academic staff (for the most part), a ingenious, entertaining and inexhaustible student union, but no toilets. So we learnt a skill that is taught in very few places. We learnt to keep in what nature suggests should be expelled. For days or even weeks, we would resist nature. With a lot of discomfort, admittedly. But we succeeded, for the most part, at this endeavour.

This got me thinking about the various skills we learnt across the many, many years (story for another day) we spent in Ile-Ife. I began thinking about how world university rankings forget that our universities should be made for us and not for the rest of the world. I thought of how the measures used to rank universities worldwide are obtuse. Like using cutlass to shave hair. Essentially they look at whether universities in the global South are as good as those in the global North, but never do the rankings go the other way. They do not rank how good the students are at surviving without toilets. Because we learnt to live without toilets. We learnt that skill. And who is to judge whether or not it is of value?

We learnt many skills, and these should be recorded against our names.

We learnt to resolutely return to rigorous studies in the aftermath of a bloodbath. We learnt to live on blood-soaked land. After July 12, 1999, life was always tinged with the images of broken bodies, the sounds of gunshots, always at the back of your mind, always threatening. But we learnt to live with the shadow of death. We survived.

We learnt the fortitude required to finish our degrees in the face of lecturers who take personal possession of marks and reserve others for divinity (i.e. A is for God and B is for me). Even when the graduation gown seemed like a distant impossible possibility, a dream at the end of a path strewn with barbwire and landmines, we forged ahead. We learnt that impossibility and possibility are variables. We survived.

We learnt the ability to attend funerals and candlelit processions and hospital bedsides and still smile into the following day. We lost classmates to sicknesses that should not kill, to roads supposedly built. We lost them to death, that seemed to dwell more with us than anywhere else. We learnt to live with death. We survived.

We lived in the middle of a war zone, and still passed our exams. Mostly. Heaven knows how long the conflict between Ife and Modakeke has been waged. We were caught in the middle of historical disputes, between ancients who have long ago shaken the dust of this craven earth from their feet. Battles over land and pride, broke into our classrooms and our dwellings with Molotov cocktails and the stench of hate and war. We survived this too.

We had some of our lectures under the hot sun, some in the rain. Most in the midst of thousands of other students. No public address system. If you wanted one, you had to buy it and risk it being stolen. We had classes from 7am till 7pm. I once fell asleep in class and continued taking dictation. Don’t ask me. I don’t know how that happened either. We survived that too.

We  survived teargas and bullets, student rampage and disease-ridden water. We faced closure after closure, we were everyone’s pawns – the government’s, the students’ union’s and the university management’s. And we learnt to be brilliant. We learnt to be absolutely, unquestionably, unconditionally, irrevocably brilliant! We studied by candle light and moonlight and lamplight and sunlight and every kind of light known to man and some as yet unrecorded. We lived on so little sleep our beds disowned us. We found weird and unexpected solutions to problems that were very unique.

We learnt to smile into the fire.

I am not saying that Nigerian universities are in an acceptable state. Not in the least! However, the assessment of whether or not the agbalumo is fit to eat, should be based on whether or not it is a good agbalumo, and not how different the peach is. Many a person has sucked on a maggot-filled agbalumo. However, we cannot say that an agbalumo is bad because it is not a peach. Not matter what we do we cannot turn an agbalumo into a peach.

It is not the first person to get to the finish line who is the better runner, but the one who has come the furthest. We have run through unbelievable obstacles, we have scaled walls designed to defeat us, hurdles placed specifically to trip us up.

You enter into the Nigerian educational system at one end, a questing child, unsure, uncertain, trepidatious – you emerge at the other end (God willing you escape with your life) you emerge a lioness. Nigerian students are people of deep resolution who learn to adapt to unimaginable situations. We learn to pick ourselves up again and again and again. We should be feared. Because ultimately, we are the ones who learnt to live without toilets.

Time Passes

NOW…

I stand here among these green barely grown trees,

I am young and strong, while they shudder in the breeze.

I am awake and aware, fresh and bright,

For now dawns the morning light.

seedlings

 

LATER…

I stand here among these green giants on the hill,

I have traversed the earth,

While they have been here standing still.

I am spent, tired from life and all its fight

As I approach the purplish rays of advancing twilight.

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MUCH LATER…

I do not stand among those ancient woods under the sun,

For though they stand solidly I, fleeting ephemeral human, am gone.

I am asleep in the earth, lost to sight…

And now falls the night.

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THE END.

Nostalgia

I lie on my back, look up at the clouds and wish….

I wish I could catch me a cloud and sail back to my yesteryears;

When the grass was green, and laughter tinkled like shining bells;

When the air was sweet as orange juice and there were no tears.

 

I would catch me a cloud and sail back to days gone by,

To running feet and times that knew no bothering cares,

To playful games in the rain soaked joyful playground,

To times when tears lasted but a second and there were no such things as fears.

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I’d catch me a cloud, so I could go to a place where flowers always bloomed,

Where hearts delighted in falling leaves and daily dying sunbeams.

I would catch me a cloud, for I would love to leave this plane of reality,

And go to a land where we were all happy and no one cried…it seemed.

 

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Sara Ahmed – ‘Brick Walls: Racism and Other Hard Histories’

In this video, Dr. Sara Ahmed talks about the brick walls of racism and the experiences of people of colour doing equity and inclusion work. I have transcribed some of the most inspiring statements below the video. I think everyone should watch it really. I have watched it more than once. I was inspired. She is brilliant!

 

‘A decision made in the present about the future gets overridden by the momentum of the past.’

‘An institutional wall is a will that does not bring something about, a yes that conceals, not bringing under the appearance of having brought’

‘To those who do not come against it, the wall does not become apparent, the institution is experienced… as open, committed and diverse’

‘Agreeing to something is one of the best ways of stopping something from happening, because organisations also avoid the costs of disagreement.’

‘Those who identify the problem become the location of the problem’

‘A wall is how a wall is not revealed. Those who do not come up against walls then experience those who do as wall-makers.’

‘What is the hardest for some, does not even exist for others.’

‘Racism is a blunt instrument… the blunter the instrument the more bodies are stopped’

‘Privilege is an energy-saving device, less effort is required to see or to do,… sometimes if you do not appear as you are expected to appear you do not appear’

‘Complaint is seen as a failure to integrate.’

‘A book tends to fall open on the pages that have been most read…things fall that way almost of their own accord.’

‘It takes conscious willed effort not to reproduce an inheritance.’

‘When you can see a problem, your perception becomes the problem.’

‘A wall is a catalogue, a history of what comes up.’

‘And that is one of the most successful techniques for deflecting attention from race – seeing racism as an accusation’

‘As if getting over it will make it over…don’t get over it, if you are not over it.’

‘Once upon a time there was a child who was willful and did not do what her mother wanted. For this reason God was displeased with her and caused her to become ill, and no doctor could help her, and in a short time she lay on her deathbed. She was lowered into a grave and covered with earth, but her little arm suddenly came forth and reached up, and it didn’t help when they put it back in and put fresh earth over it, for the little arm always came out again. So the mother herself had to go to the grave and beat the little arm with a switch, and as soon as she had done that, it withdrew, and the child finally came to rest beneath the earth.’

‘It is the story of an arm but also the story of a rod.’

‘It is a story that insists on violence as moral correction.’

‘The enslaved and colonised were positioned as children.’

‘It is an imperial story…It is out there.’

‘The arm remembers… the arm is speaking to us.’

‘we have to find a way of holding each other up’

‘some of us are only here now because the arms keep on coming up’

Finding My Africa, Finding Myself

I have had a fractious relationship with my African identity. I spent a part of my early childhood in the UK. My parents were among that crop of Nigerians who travelled out into the world to get further qualifications after their first degrees. As children in the UK, we experienced the exclusions that come from being a Black African in a world not constructed with us in mind. Classmates asked questions about huts in Africa, and wondered aloud about the correlation between not bathing and dark pigmentations, teachers made assumptions and associations about melanin and aptitude for sports and mathematics. Unlike many Nigerians, I never had the luxury of never knowing I was black.

My parents were really eager for us to return to Nigeria after their degrees. I know they had friends who stayed on in the UK, even though they had been sponsored by the Nigerian government and were meant to return to Nigeria. It was the 80s, we had no idea where Nigeria was headed, but there was still hope in those days. My parents wanted to go home. Home. Home is a dangerous spirit. Home is a restless soul. I had been taken to the UK as a baby and had no concept of this ‘home’. But on my parent lips, the word ‘home’ was seductive, like dark and luscious chocolate after a fast. We had a countdown and we were going home! The excitement was palpable, even if I could not understand it. We were going home. Home had to be better than here.

The first thing I remember was the heat. When we landed at MMA in Lagos, the heat wrapped us up in its humid embrace and threatened to suffocate the life from us. Ilorin, a short flight northwards, was a bit cooler. Though not by much. After wading through snow in Southampton, the sun in the Southern hemisphere was striking. For a long while, we could only walk in the shade. The trees were different, big leafy giants. Not the spindly mid-height trees, we had left behind. Everything was loud, cars, music, people. The people were all black. Different shades of black, different types of people. All black. After a while you stop noticing.

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So I learnt to be African. I learnt malaria. I learnt the fortnightly chills that were the gift of the mosquito. The malaria medication that slowly drove you mad.

I learnt family. Family in Nigeria is not an antiseptic relationship reserved only for parents and children. It is a chaotic kaleidoscope culminating in a maelstrom of emotion. It is anger and hatred and need and love and bitterness and codependency. It is everything. It encapsulates towns, and cities and villages, it destroys nations and disrespects borders.

I found Africa in the thunder and the lightning and the rain. When the skies release the floods, you had better seek shelter or risk drowning. The earth drinks in the bounty of the heaven and brings forth seed. The smell of the soil after a tropical rain is more intoxicating than palmwine on an empty stomach.

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I found Africa in the music. The 80s was the time of Apartheid and SAP and Pan Africanism, a time of elevated shoulder pads and pouffy Jerri-curls. We danced to Shina Peters, Majek Fashek, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Mariam Makeba, Bob Marley, Ras Kimono, Sonny Okosuns, IK Dairo, King Sunny Ade…

I found  Nigeria in my journeys. I travelled smooth roads and bounced over deep gullies pretending to be potholes. I bought gala and Agege bread through half opened windows. Between Egbe and Obajana, I was covered with enough dust  to build a dozen huts. I travelled from savanna north to forest south. I visited motor parks from Akure to Gariki, from Zuba to Ojota. I climbed Mount Pati and Erin Ijesha falls, crossed the Rivers Niger and Benue, I have driven over the Atlantic. I got lost in Ila Orangun. I have seen hamlets like Isapa Tuntun, villages like my own Olle-Bunu, towns like sleepy Idofian and cities as dynamic as Enugu.

I found Africa in the struggle. The struggle to be a good student – as teachers tried to marry tradition with education, sometimes the combination became volatile and exploded, sometimes they married well and exuded a sweet fragrance that wafted into our hearts and stayed there. The struggle for relevance in a world obsessed with power. A Nigeria where to be young and female is to strip you of autonomy.

I found Africa in protest. At university, we were always protesting something, it was as if we had to prove to ourselves and each other, prove to each other that despite the stench of deprivation, we still had some power, that we were still alive, that we meant something. I found Africa in the spontaneous songs of struggle, the irrepressible spirit, that kept getting back up after being knocked down. The creative causes that found us blocking roads with billiard tables and quoting Socrates and Aristotle to market women and bus drivers.

I found Africa in the pain. Because no matter how deep it burned, how hot the wounds seared, there was always someone there. Always. Someone who looked at you and saw you. You. Not some stereotypical image of deprived black humanity, but you. As you were. Black. And beautiful. And human.

Africa may not be a country. But it is more than a continent. Africa is its people, all those on the continent and those flung across the earth like so many specks of oloyin beans across the floor. I learnt Africa. And found myself. African. Woman. Me.

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I am a Black Woman by Mari Evans (1923-2017)

I am a black woman
the music of my song
some sweet arpeggio of tears
is written in a minor key
and I
can be heard humming in the night
Can be heard
humming
in the night

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I saw my mate leap screaming to the sea
and I

with these hands

cupped the lifebreath
from my issue in the canebrake
I lost Nat’s swinging body in a rain of tears
and heard my son scream all the way from Anzio
for Peace he never knew….I
learned Da Nang and Pork Chop Hill
in anguish
Now my nostrils know the gas
and these trigger tired fingers
seek the softness in my warrior’s beard

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I am a black woman
tall as a cypress
strong
beyond all definition still
defying place
and time
and circumstance
assailed
impervious
indestructible
Look
on me and be
renewed

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A Tribute to My Grandmother

When my grandmother was about 13 years old, she was introduced to the man that had been chosen by her parents, for her to marry. Even now, my grandma is nowhere near 5 feet, and then this man towered above her. As she told the tale to me, she was bending over some washing during the introduction, she looked up, and his head was in the rafters, AND he was exceedingly old. (He was probably in his late 30s though!) What do you do? She was extremely intimidated by the thought of marrying this old giant, so she told her parents that times were a-changing and a good wife should at least learn to read and write. So, they sent her to school to learn to be a good wife. That is where she met my grandfather, and married him. Nigerian men often complain about how devious Nigerian women are, but often do not consider that deceit is the only way of escape from the unnatural evil cages of societal oppression and deprivation that we have been forced into. But this is not about Nigerian men. This is my grandmother’s story.

My grandmother probably did not have an easier life with my grandfather than she would have had with the man chosen for her. Apparently, he (her chosen intended) was quite well-off. My grandfather on the other hand, was a poor schoolteacher, in a time when cocoa farmers were the big moneybags. As the wife of a school teacher, my grandma trekked more miles across Nigeria than you could ever imagine. Carrying all her belongings on her head, and her children on her back. My grandfather was always being posted somewhere. Mention a town in present day Okunland and my grandfather has probably taught there. My grandmother buried three children. One died as she carried him on her back and raced to the hospital at Egbe to get him treated. He died before they got there. Trekking. She became the arbiter of family quarrels, the mother to all my grandfather’s students/pupils. The rock he relied on for sustenance. No, she has not had an easy life. But she had the life she chose. This is her story.

When we talk about women’s rights, or equality, this is what we mean. Ensuring that girls and women can choose their destiny. That they are not hindered by the irrational expectations of social mores that are nothing more that the fruits of the tree of dominator culture. We hope that we live our lives as the fulfilment of our grandmother’s dreams. And this is why I write. This is my grandmother’s story. This is my story. I am my grandmother’s dreams. Being fulfilled. Daily.

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My Grandmother

Picture taken August 2016.

A Review of the ROOTS Remake

‘You can’t buy a slave, you have to make a slave’ Connelly the Foreman on the Waller plantation

‘You must hear your name first… your name is your spirit, your name is your shield’

One of the defining moments of my life was reading ‘Roots’ by Alex Haley when I was 8 years old. [Yes I know… not suitable for young children. I was precocious. Don’t blame me] The knowledge of the not-fictional nature of the book gives me chills to this day. The book is detailed and graphic. Neither of the TV editions of ROOTS, goes into as much detail as the book. A few months after I read the book, NTA decided to show the 1977 edition. The whipping scene was so hard to watch, it feels like it is seared unto the brain forevermore. A few years ago I bought the complete ROOTS boxset. It includes:

  • Roots: The Original Series,
  • Roots: The Next Generation, and
  • Roots: The Gift.

It is a hard watch. So when I heard of the new series, I was torn as to whether or not to watch it. However, I decided to. It was a traumatising experience. But necessary, I believe. I think everyone should watch either of the editions or read the book.

I do not believe in watching horrific graphics for fun. So I tend not to watch horror films of films with excessive violence. ROOTS is a necessary part of our landscape. We try to escape from the tendrils of slavery and shut its memory into the coffers of our mind. And we fail miserably. How we fail! It eats away at the fibre of group relationships like a flesh-eating worm and we lock the decay away, suffocating on the stench in the humidity of human oblivion. But it smells. How it smells! And still we pretend that group interaction today has not been affected by this, the gravest sin of humanity.

While watching ROOTS, if you see any parallels between then and now, this should make us take notice. Notice that many things have changed but many things remain the same. I think that the new edition was at times too aware of present day feelings. But again how could you not be? If you read/watch ROOTS today, you will be shocked at how slowly change has been wrought. We are so intent on labelling people as good or bad, we forget that people CANNOT be separated into monsters and saints. It is actions that are good or bad. Not people. People are just people. And if you hold up an oppressive system in anyway then you are complicit in it. Your action/inaction makes you complicit. No matter how good a slave owner is, his actions are oppressive. He has still decided that the trade in human beings is alright, because it does him no harm, but makes him richer. Think about it.

So the narrative seems to account for current sensibilities in a way that the first edition did not. Maybe that is not such a bad thing. Think about it. We look at Tom Lea as a horrible person, but he was not doing anything out of the ordinary. He sold his son and his grandchildren, but so many people did the same and he thought he was not such a bad guy. He felt oppressed. Think about it. Maybe our moral compass should not be what is acceptable, but what is right. And what is right? Human dignity. Anything that accords all people as much dignity as YOU think YOU deserve, that is right.

A few thoughts on the production itself. The whipping scene is still as horrific. The acting was great. The cast was outstanding. Special mention has to be made of Rege Jean-Page’s turn as Chicken George. George was always the star of the show, with his flamboyance and style. Ben Vereen was quite good in that role in the 1977 edition. But I think Rege drew me in from his first appearance on screen. Rege made Chicken George many-layered. Chicken George wanted to be loved by his slave owner/father. He wanted the privilege of whiteness. In the end he could not outrun his skin. He accepted himself. Rege showed the complexity of Chicken George’s journey and character arc in this role.

Another major change in the new edition is the attempt to show Jufureh as a thriving city, rather than the hamlet of the first edition. While there was much to be said for doing so, there are a couple of inaccuracies in the timeline. Kunta says he wants to serve the Mansa (King). However, the Mali empire that used Mansa as a regal title became defunct around 1610. Too early for Kunta Kinte to use that title as he (Kunta) supposedly fought in the Revolutionary war (1775–1783). There are a few other anachronisms which I will not mention. You can read my earlier piece on West African history here.

Nevertheless, the concerted effort to connect the narrative to the characters’ ancestral home gives the screenplay a lot of its heart. The naming ritual which consists of presenting the child to the sky, has much more resonance in this edition. When Kizzy attempts to kill herself and baby George but changes her mind and then decides to live, the naming ritual takes on an added significance. It becomes a reaffirmation of life. Binta – Kunta mother’s song is especially poignant. Her song followed them across the waters. It follows Kizzy through her ordeal and objectification at Tom Lea’s hands. It follows George into battle. And it also shows us a practical example of appropriation, when it gets turned into a Southern folk song. No royalties paid.

The new edition is shorter. About 4 hours shorter. There were incidences in the action that highlighted this difference. The need to have a series of quick paced sequences rather then the slow paced journey into death that was the reality of slavery. The most jarring of these is when George shoots Fredrick Murray at the end. In my opinion, this would have been highly unlikely in reality and the effect of it is to condense over 50 minutes of screen action into one minute. It alters the reality of slavery, suggesting that a black man could shoot a white man in front of witnesses and live to tell of it.

A word on Language: Connelly was right (see quotation above). A person is made a slave. Nobody is born a slave. Even children born into slavery were born INTO it. For a few seconds when their lungs greeted the air that will sustain them till death, they were free. Then enslaved. Which is why I hate labels. When we label someone, we reduce the complexity and vastness of their possibility to one thing and one thing only. And in most cases that one thing is a pejorative. Slave. Immigrant. Refugee. I know many people rail against political correctness because they see it as a restriction of their freedom of expression. However, the restriction is not on the expression, but on the use of that expression to restrict someone else’s equal humanity. The language we use is evidence of our values.

One thing I still find heartbreaking about the narrative is the relay nature of it. When the runner’s time is done it is done. When Kunta is stolen, Omoro and Binta cease to exist for us; Kizzy is sold, Kunta’s screen time ends. How heartbreaking is that in a world that prides itself so much on heritage and family, to erase a family. But batons are passed on – Binta’s lullaby, the sky, a sense of self.

(For a more cumulative effect/volume of the Atlantic slave trade, see this interactive map here. Between 1525 and 1866, they were more than 35000 slave trading voyages between Africa and the Americas. People enslaved and traded – 10.7 million. Human cost: Infinite)

A word from the stars of ROOTS:

“Our history does not begin at slavery. Be proud of your ancestry. Don’t think that it’s a negative thing to be African. It’s a beautiful thing. A positive thing. Those people who were enslaved were not weak. So it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Those were strong people. If they weren’t they wouldn’t have been slaves. They woulda just been killed. They were taken because they were so strong. And they survived.” –Malachi Kirby (Kunta Kinte)

‘If you tell human stories properly and with respect… there will always be redemption’ –Rege Jean-Page (Chicken George)

Finally a message for Africa: Pan-Africanism is the belief that all black people are bound and can only achieve true liberty in unity. We Africans have come this way before, we have read these lines, cried this lament, too many times. There have been too many rhymes sent up to deities who have given us power to break free of the cords with which we have bound our brothers and sisters, bound our own souls. I believe the earth has drunk more of our blood then it has drunk the water from the skies. Freedom is an abstract concept. Freedom is a becoming. It is not a work of a moment. The moment slavery ended, black people in America (and across the world) did not achieve equality, and have not done so as yet. It is a becoming. When the colonial masters marched out of Africa fleeing from malaria and mosquitoes, African states did not immediately achieve equality, and they have not as yet. Freedom is a becoming. And at least it has started.

‘They can’t sell my wife and child no more. No more that! No more that! We free now. Bless the Lord!’

Freed man, USA, 1865

Cited in Paying Freedom’s Price: A History of African Americans in the Civil War
The African American History Series

by PD Escott

 

I Don’t Want to Hear Another Non-Apology

I have been thinking about whether or not to write this for a while. Yoruba people say that you do not comment on everything you see. Silence is often golden. But I saw something today which took the biscuit – more like the akara, really. And nobody messes with my akara. You can have the moin-moin, but step away from the akara.

So this woman and her partner, went to a kids’ party and traumatised them by using racial slurs, threatening to kill them and waving the Confederate flag. Because… Who cares? I don’t. So after being sentenced to 6 years in jail, she purports to apologise. Watch supposed apology below.

The gist of her apology is ‘I am a good person, and it is unfortunate you had this bad experience.’ I see this kind of thing over and over again in public apologies, like there is a template somewhere, that everyone uses. The structure is standard. First explain how you are blameless, then express some emotion at the bad experience of the other person had,  experience that you directly caused but are not responsible for. This type of apology is mostly targeted at an oppressed group. Very much a symbol of our dominator culture. Black people are told that the apologiser is sorry for offence caused, women are told that the apology is for their hurt feelings. There are so many problems with this format of apology, but the major thing is that the apology is for the offence caused, not the act itself.

So let us break it down, offence is a choice that the receiver of the wrong action makes but offence is not what makes an action or statement of the giver of offence objectionable, but the inherent objectionability of said statement or action. If you use offensive language in the woods and nobody hears is the statement offensive? Yes. Was anyone offended? No. Should you apologise? Who to? Should you be remorseful? Of course yes! Many people respond to objectionable comments targeted at groups with statements such as ‘I am a member of group X, and I am not offended.’ So? Who cares?! The statement is offensive irrespective of offence received. Apologising for ‘offence caused’ prefaces the apology on the other person’s decision to take offence and completely abdicates responsibility for action taken/words spoken. By premising the apology with a statement about the speaker’s goodness, and backing that up by blaming the hearer for taking offence, what looks like an apology, is actually an insult.

I was going to write a longer rant about this. However, people more articulate than me have engaged with this. Stacey Midge in response to Jenna Bush’s apology after HiddenFences-gate tweeted the following.

An apology that does not express remorse or take responsibility for personal action and change is not an apology and is better left unspoken.

Over and out!