Thursday, May 31, 2007

Britney Spears' Blog to Fans

Britney Spears recently posted a letter on her site to fans. In it, Spears employs a number of apologiae strategies to explain recent stories about her behavior.

One of the most prominent strategies used by Spears in her defense is the strategy of "defeasibility," which is used to evade responsibility. For example, early in her letter, Spears states "I was like a bad kid running around with ADD" followed by "after I got my divorce... I was so overwhelmed, I think that I was in a little shock too" and, finally, she confesses "I was so lost." The rhetorical force of these statements implicitly suggests that Spears should not be judged too harshly nor held responsible for her actions. Instead, lack of control is actually to blame.

In addition to "defeasibility," Spears also employs a "bolstering" strategy (for example, "I just want the same things in life that you want...and that is to be happy") and an "attacking the accuser" strategy (such as "It's so funny how many stories are put out there about people" and "I used to be angry at the tabloids for printing horrible things about me"). These comments attempt to reduce the offensiveness of Spears' wrongful acts by identifying with the public while, at the same time, shifting the focus from her own actions to the possibly unethical actions of her accusers.

One has to wonder, however, why Spears chose to leave the provocative image adjacent to her defense.

Hearit's Three-Act Play and Ideal Apologia

In "Crisis Management by Apology," Keith Michael Hearit argues that an apologetic exchange can be viewed as a three-act play or ritual consisting of: an act, a charge of wrongdoing, and a defense. A critical element of this three-act play is the idea of guilt. In essence, the charge of wrongdoing is an assertion that an individual or organization has violated “some cherished social value” and, therefore, must purge the guilt of this violation and seek restoration into the community in the final act: the apologia.

Hearit also lays out a method for ethically judging the apologetic decisions of individuals and organizations. This method is based on two aspects of apologetic discourse: (1) the manner and (2) the content. In terms of the manner, Hearit asserts that, ideally, an ethical apologia is truthful, sincere, timely, and voluntary. It also addresses all stakeholders and is performed in an appropriate context (p. 64). However, in terms of the content, an ethical apologia should acknowledge wrongdoing, accept responsibility, express regret, identify with the victims, ask for forgiveness, seek reconciliation, disclose relevant information, provide an explanation that addresses the victims’ questions and concerns, and offer corrective actions and compensation.

It is worth noting that these characteristics describe the ideal or paradigm case of an ethical apologia. Therefore, an apologia that fails to meet one or several aspects is not necessarily unethical. Rather, it may be less ethical than the ideal, but still judged “ethically acceptable.” Moreover, there are at least five circumstances “that could justify departures from the paradigm case while still retaining the essential ethical character of an apologia.” These circumstances include: catastrophic financial losses, grave liability issues, a “moral learning curve,” questions over full-disclosure, and even situations where confidentiality or discretion are expected.

Benoit's Five Major Strategies

Based on the work done by Ware and Linkugel, William Benoit introduced perhaps the most comprehensive account of apologetic strategies in his book "Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies." Benoit's theory consists of five major strategies used by speakers: denial, evading responsibility, reducing offensiveness, corrective action, and mortification. In addition, Benoit offers subcategories for each.

The first strategy—denial—consists of two forms: 1) simple denial, in which the speaker denies the act or, at least, denies taking part in it; and 2) shifting the blame, which is also known as scapegoating.

The second strategy—evasion of responsibility—consists of: 1) provocation, suggesting that the accused responded after being provoked; 2) defeasibility, suggesting that a lack of either information or control is actually to blame; 3) accidents, suggesting it was an accident; and 4) good intentions, suggesting that the accused performed the act with good intentions, despite the negative outcome.

The third strategy details how apologists attempt to reduce the offensiveness of their wrongful acts by using: 1) bolstering, such as describing the positive attributes and qualities of a person; 2) minimization, attempting to decrease the audience’s negative view of the situation; 3) differentiation, focusing on how a particular situation differs from similar, yet much worse acts; 4) transcendence, discussing the act in terms of abstract values and group loyalties; 5) attacking the accuser to undermine his or her credibility; and 6) offering compensation to the victims.

The fourth strategy—corrective action—describes how apologists offer to repair damages caused by their actions, as well as take steps to prevent the event from happening again.

Finally, the fifth strategy—mortification—is based on Burke’s discussion of mortification in which the accused “admits wrongful behavior, asks for forgiveness, and apologizes.”

Ware and Linkugel: Four Factors

B.L Ware and Wil A. Linkugel draw on Robert Abelson’s theory of belief-dilemma resolution to describe four factors that apologists use when caught in a wrong: denial, bolstering, differentiation, and transcendence (275).

According to Ware and Linkugel, the first two factors—denial and bolstering—are reformative in the sense that in neither case does the speaker “totally invent the identification” (277) nor does the speaker attempt to “change the audience’s meaning” (275) of the issue or idea being discussed. The act of denying allegations and facts is useful in apologetic discourse in that (as long as the truth is not distorted) it allows the apologist to respond to charges in a way that does not conflict with the values and beliefs of the audience (Ware and Linkugel 275). In contrast to denial, bolstering takes place when an apologist “attempts to identify himself with something viewed favorably by the audience” (Ware and Linkugel 277).

While denial and bolstering are reformative, the second and third factors—differentiation and transcendence—are transformative. Differentiation is described as a discussion of the individual aspects that make up a larger action or accusation; in doing so, speakers attempt to redefine situations or cast their actions in a new, more detailed, and positive light (Ware and Linkugel 278-279). In contrast to differentiation, the fourth factor—transcendence—describes strategies shift the focus away from the particulars of a situation to the larger, conceptual ideals that the audience views favorably (Ware and Linkugel 280).

In short, the four factors consist of two reformative factors (denial which involves negation and bolstering which involves the opposite, identification) that do not attempt to change the meaning of the issue being discussed, and two transformative factors (differentiation, which focuses the audience’s attention on the particular, and transcendence which focuses on the abstract). Ware and Linkugel also combine one transformative factor with one reformative to construct four rhetorical postures often used by apologists: absolution (which consists of denial and differentiation), vindication (denial and transcendence), explanation (bolstering and differentiation), and justification (bolstering and transcendence) (282-283).

Erving Goffman's Remedial Strategies

In his 1971 book Relations in Public: Microstudies of the Public Order, Erving Goffman explores the “remedial” strategies available to the accused. By focusing on “remedial work,” Goffman explicitly states that the goal of the accused is to transform or reposition the “meaning” of the act of wrongdoing—in an attempt to re-position an act that at first seems offensive into a socially acceptable one (109).

To achieve such a remediation, an accused person must either offer an account, an apology, or a request (Goffman 115). Accoding to Goffman, an account may include such strategies as denying that the act occurred or an admittance that the act occurred, but that the accused isn’t responsible for or couldn’t foresee the negative outcome (109-112). The second remedial strategy consists of an apology, in which the accused, essentially, splits himself into two parts: the guilty side and the side that “stands back and sympathizes with the blame giving, and, by implication, is worthy of being brought back into the fold” (Goffman 113). Finally, the accused can defend his or her actions by noting that the victim granted a request prior to the act and, therefore, is partly, if not, solely responsible for the outcome. For example, before violating someone’s privacy, a person may ask: “Can I ask you something personal?” (Goffman 115).

Regardless of whether a person uses an account, apology, or request, Goffman states that often two distinct processes actually occur in remedial work. One is restitutive, in which the victim receives some form of compensation. The other, which is more relevant to our discussion, is ritualistic. By ritualistic, Goffman means that the accused performs a ritual whereby he or she acknowledges the social rules, norms, or values that have been broken and realigns with or reaccepts that social order. This aspect is critical because it establishes wrongful acts as breaks from a society’s values; moreover, it establishes the remedial work as a public ritual in which those values are reaccepted. In other words, as Keith Michael Hearit notes, the goal is not actually forgiveness, but rather the repair of an “image-based social relationship” through a ritualistic acknowledgement and acceptance of values (Crisis Management 17).

Consequently, individuals or organizations offer not merely a defense, but a defense that seeks “restoration into the community” (Hearit Crisis Management 36). As we can see, then, whether the accused relies on an account, an apology, or a request, reacceptance into the community hinges on whether the accused accepts the social order and values that are believed to have been violated (Goffman 165).

Apologia Versus Apology

Although the terms "apologia" and "apology" seem similar, there is actually an important point of distinction between the commonly heard term apology and the lesser-known term apologia. The term apology is used when a person or corporation acknowledges guilt and expresses regret (Hearit Crisis Management 4). Apologia, on the other hand, is a Greek term that can be defined more broadly as any speech that is given in defense of an accusation (Ryan 255-256). It’s worth noting that apologia need not be presented as a “speech,” in the strict sense of the word. Rather, an apologia may be delivered in a variety of forms, including such materials as “an autobiography, a press release, a pamphlet, a play, or a novel” (Kruse 282).

Finally, it is important to understand that although these two terms are distinct, the broader term apologia may in fact contain an apology or an acknowledgement of responsibility (Hearit “Apologies and Public Relations” 115). Conversely, an apologia may offer “a compelling, counter description of organizational actions” without any acknowledgement of wrongdoing (Hearit “Apologies and Public Relations” 115). For example, if a newspaper reports that a product is hazardous, the manufacturer of that product may issue a statement denying the charge, and citing test results that demonstrate the safety of the product. In doing so, the company may explicitly refuse to accept responsibility for an action or undesirable situation. Although such a response would not be considered an apology, it does fit within the category of apologia.

By situating the discussion around apologiae rather than apologies, critics are able to focus not merely on instances in which organizations offer an admission of guilt, but more broadly on all situations in which an individual or organization has been accused of wrong-doing and offers some form of defense in response.