Is “I Didn’t Mean That Thing I Said” A Credible Excuse?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 5, 2014 – 5:02 AM

Comedian Jonah Hill was caught on video last weekend telling a photographer who was following him, “Suck my dick, you faggot.”

I have big issues with paparazzi (and the outlets that buy their photos) who make a living violating the personal space and privacy of celebrities for profit; that stars snap occasionally in such situations seems like an understandable human response.

But what caught my attention was Jonah Hill’s first apology, in which he said: “In that moment, I said a disgusting word that does not at all reflect how I feel about any group of people.”

Hill’s response seems to fit into the de rigueur crisis response in such situations, which goes something like this: “Although I said what I said, it doesn’t represent who I am or what I believe.” (Hill’s apology on Tuesday’s The Tonight Show seemed sincere, and I doubt he’ll incur much reputational damage.)

Alec Baldwin used a similar approach after unleashing gay slurs last year: “As someone who fights against homophobia, I apologize.” Catch that? Although he said what he said, his words don’t represent his views.

After Mel Gibson made anti-Semitic remarks, he apologized by saying: “Please know from my heart that I am not an anti-Semite.”

Even (former) disgraced L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling tried a similar statement: “25 percent of my home game are black people and I love them.”

Here’s my question: Does the “What I said doesn’t represent what I feel” approach work? Is it credible?

Alec Baldwin Tweet

In Jonah Hill’s case, it might. He seemed genuinely aggrieved by his choice of words and their impact. And yet…if there wasn’t a place somewhere in him that viewed gay people differently, would he have chosen to lash out by calling someone a faggot? If Mel Gibson didn’t view Jews at least somewhat negatively, would he have used anti-Semitic slurs? Isn’t the language we choose representative of the thoughts we think?

Personally, I’m finding this type of response less and less credible. Michael Richards (Kramer on Seinfeld), who destroyed his career after a particularly ugly rant against African Americans (he repeatedly screamed the n-word at black audience members in a comedy club), may have gotten his response right: “I’ll get to the force field of this hostility, why it’s there,” he said.

That seems to be a more credible approach. I’d rather see a similar type of response in these instances: “Clearly, my choice of words tells me that I have some work to do on myself. Those words are ugly, hurtful, and even dangerous–and I will do everything in my power to understand the source of my prejudices and do the work it takes to extinguish them. In the meantime, I apologize for perpetuating the hurt so many people have endured.”

Does The "I Didn't Mean What I Said Approach" Work?

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Comments (5)

  1. By Kevin:

    Oops, I meant to click Yes. People say things they don’t really mean all the time. I think when you’re angry and you know something will really cut somebody you can snap and say it without it being a reflection on your wider thoughts. Let’s be honest, we all know that what Jonah said is hurtful. I doubt any of us can guarantee that when pushed to our limit we wouldn’t try to use words to hurt people, even if we know we shouldn’t.

    With Baldwin and Gibson it’s different. They have an established pattern of if not expressing the same thing then lashing out in bizarre ways. That makes them tougher to believe.

  2. By Brad Phillips:

    Hi Kevin,

    You make a valid point regarding people stretched to their limits. I agree with you that the behavior exhibited by Gibson and Baldwin seems to fit into a larger pattern, whereas Jonah Hill’s feels a little different (that’s the reason I think his lashing out is unlikely to inflict long-lasting damage onto his career).

    Still, if you’re calling someone a “faggot” because you want to hurt them, isn’t that a sign that you think being gay is a negative? Or, at the very least, that the person you’re labeling a faggot thinks it’s negative?

    I don’t claim to have all of the answers on this one, and look forward to hearing what readers have to say.

    Thanks, as always, for weighing in.


  3. By Kevin:

    I think your second sentence hit it. It’s something you’d say because you know the person hearing it won’t like it.

    The math problems below challenge me more than I’d like.

  4. By Kevin 2:

    Absolutely this is a valid argument. Every one of us has done or said things that, looking back on them, are poor reflections of who we are. Fortunately for most of us, we’re not caught on camera in the act.

    His history seems to show that he is not homophobic. He understands that he said something hurtful and sincerely apologized. Move along people, nothing to see here.

  5. By j:

    I totally agree with the points of this article and found it to be a great read! I’d like to put two interesting spins on the conversation:

    1. In society, I think the mainstream of calling someone certain words N*, F*, C*, etc., is to be hurtful (as ignorant as it may be) and not meant to be “perpetuating the hate”- I think society has adopted these words as being really hurtful regardless of the origins, and that the words have become mainstream cuts without people actually understanding they (also) have racist/homophobic/other meanings than they intended by uttering them (yes, there are racist/homophobic/etc. people out there who do understand and are adding to the hate, which is horrible)…but I see the point of the person slandering the words is really just to be as hurtful as they can be using society’s common words – e.g., look at some of Jonah’s movies…to call someone a “faggot dickhead” is not actually meant to be homophobic, but to be an ultimate cutdown (not because the person is gay or not, just that it is a mainstream “hurt” word) – yes it may add to promoting homophobic when you break it down, but is debatable that this is what the person meant–I think historically, the N-word was treated the same way by a lot of people 30+ years ago…ignorant in that the person uttering doesn’t think it through as “this is racist/homophobic” and yes, it adds to people continuing to use the word(s). Heck, I remember British slang for a cigarette is a “fag” …think of all the trouble someone can get in from a different culture/upbringing/even sheltered life can get into by using words they are used to (I’d like to think Sterling falls into this list…not necessarily racist, but old and ignorant – and not a good communicator). But ultimately yes, if we shun people for using the words, that’s the best practice (but maybe the point is not to overreact and remember we’re all human). IMO, these words are hateful and should not be used whenever possible (but definitely I can see in times of rage or stress that someone slips into using the wrong word…heck, I know friends use F@ggot a lot – between friends – in joking/bantering ways and would use them as hurt-slang/teasing, and not actually meaning anything homophobic…sad, but also true).

    2. When you are in the limelight, everything you say can and will be interpreted (look at Beiber, look at Gibson, look at Hill, look at La Bron even…). Someone will always take what was said in a positive and negative way (spin to their own agenda?). Unfortunately the attitudes exist, words exist and society exists…people will continue to use these words whether meant to be racist/homophobic/etc. AND society will continue to “read in” to why they used the words…And society overacts and has that extra-sensitivity to these words being used (rightly so, they should not be used…but when someone utters it, the sh*t hits the fan! Everyone overacts and assumes they are the worst person in the world. Society always takes the extreme positions instead of remembering everyone is human.

    But I also think people say and do things without thinking, and that (is a challenge of life) is usually where this grey area falls (are they racist/homophob?)…Maybe there are some forms of not accepting different people (anyone remember high school?) and that there are a lot of people who fear different (and use the words because of their fear)…society is changing for the better, but still has a long way to go (e.g., most people don’t use the n* word as frequently anymore…)…eventually we’ll get there.

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