Monday, February 7, 2011

Christopher O'Riley and the non-apology apology

Christopher O'Riley: not SO sorry.
By Barry Johnson

Public people often apologize for giving offense -- not for the content of their remarks but for the effect those words have on people who hear them. These aren't real apologies.  Instead, they blame the offended for being of such tender sensibility that they find the truth, roughly spoken as it may be, to be offensive. The interior dialog may go something like this: "It's not really my fault that you're so fragile and have taken offense at what I've said, but if you have, gee, I wish you hadn't. I wish you'd left thinking that I'm a great person, deserving of your support. And I'm a little sorry for myself that you've misunderstood me to such an extent. So, I'm sorry. Poor me."

How about saying, "I got it wrong," instead? Because most of the time those public figures are just that -- wrong.

That's how I feel about pianist/radio host Christopher O'Riley's "apology" for his comments about the Detroit Symphony musicians strike on his NPR blog. Here's what he said:
"Meanwhile, another similarly endangered orchestra, the Detroit Symphony, might fail partially because the musicians of the Motor City crew don't feel that any community service is their responsibility; that their practice time is sacred; and they can't be bothered to get out and serve their community, or prove in any way other than their musical excellence their civic worth and integrity. This ivory-tower attitude is a failure to listen to that portion of the community that wants to be shown, in sincere and substantive ways, why an orchestra is an essential part of the city's life."
This is simply wrong, as many in the comment thread pointed out.

If O'Riley had done any reporting whatsoever, he would have discovered that he had created a straw dog suitable to his argument about how to save classical music (much of which is entirely reasonable from where I sit) instead of accurately describing either the attitudes or the practices of the Detroit Symphony musicians, who have been playing in malls and churches in the Detroit area since the strike began and who did not refuse "to get out and serve their community" before the strike, as O'Riley said. (Here's a reasonable account of the dispute from October, which happens to quote Arts Dispatch.)

After a serious hiding in the comments thread, O'Riley finally issued this "apology": "I also never presumed that my opinion would be regarded as anything more than just that, my opinion, and if my comments were in any way wounding to fellow musicians, I sincerely apologise."

How about, "I apologize because my opinion was under-researched, ill-considered and in the final analysis, simply wrong"? Why is that so hard to say? Sure, you can have an opinion, but when you don't budge from it in the face of overwhelming evidence, then it becomes a stupid opinion. And then, the point isn't how it makes other people "feel," it's about your own intellectual honesty.  Christopher O'Riley, in this case, isn't intellectually honest. It damages everything else he says in his post, and it rightly will give us pause whenever we hear or read his opinion again.

I seriously doubt that O'Riley's stupid opinion "wounded" anyone. It made the people who have followed this dispute angry that a public figure with an audience described the dispute so badly, especially in so self-serving a post (which primarily praises his own NPR show and its musical broad-mindedness, which, again, I applaud).

Then O'Riley follows the "interior dialog" above, by getting a bit emotional ("Poor me") himself:  "i've said all i feel i need to at this point, including having made an apology to those who feel my voicing of an opinion as well as direct quotations from the disputants themselves were deemed offensive. feel free to voice your views, but i'm done here." (I've left capitalization as it is in the comment.)

But O'Riley shouldn't apologize for offending his readers. He should apologize for being wrong.

I was tipped off to O'Riley's post and the ensuing argument by Drew McManus on his Adaptistration blog. I whole-heartedly agree with his observation that by keeping their negotiations secret, both sides of the labor dispute in Detroit have made it impossible for their larger community to learn something from the strike and help the sides find some sort of common ground.


Big Gay Ice Cream Man said...

Well said.

Janet Horvath said...

Mr O'Riley is so misguided it makes my blood boil. There is virtually no orchestra that does not do a great deal of community service, both as a group and individually. I personally have performed countless fund- raising events for important causes. We try to make a difference in our communities. Mr. O'Riley has made a similar deprecating remark about orchestral musicians in my presence. It's what he truly thinks. No "apologies" are accepted from him.

Kathy said...

It's sad that Mr. O'Riley doesn't understand the gist of the Detroit Symphony's strike. It had nothing to do with public service.... And everything to do with cutting the size of the group to a chamber orchestra and the pay to a 4th tier level.

Barry Johnson said...

I think he had a self-serving argument he wanted to make and attempted to force the DSO strike to fit into that argument, without doing any research into the issue. And then failed to admit his mistake gracefully, compounding the error and obscuring his original point, which isn't particularly revolutionary.

It's worth talking about how much and what kinds of what we call "community outreach" symphony musicians should do. A lot depends on the specific city, I suppose, and the specific musician. But that's not the conversation that O'Riley wanted to have. Mostly he wanted to plug his own show, seemed to me.

Juan said...

He was only "apologetic" toward the end of the NPR thread, after the big guns chimed in, musicians from the Detroit, Pittsburgh and Cleveland orchestras.

Barry Johnson said...

Juan, Absolutely right. And a half-hearted one at that. Or less.

Janet, he seems to have a lot tied up in this fiction of the ivory tower classical musician. I'm glad that the musicians called him on it in the comment thread of his blog... and that you done it here. Thank you!

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