Have you ever made a complete ass of yourself and then had to apologize later? Ever found yourself rapidly backpedaling from something you said that, while ill judged at the time, seems head-smackingly foolish in retrospect? Have you ever found yourself stammering out an apology for “my poor choice of words?”
Personally, I can’t recall doing this—but I would bet that I have. I would bet that most people have (excluding incredibly inoffensive people, and assholes who never apologize). It’s not surprising that this phrase might come into your head at a moment of tension when you are fumbling for a way to take back something you said; after all, we hear it all the time. But if you ever find yourself about to say this, you really, really shouldn’t.
Last Friday I wrote about apologizing by claiming “it wasn’t my intent;” which is valid in minor incidents where good intentions can be presumed, but is often used to justify wildly prejudiced things. “A poor choice of words” is a close cousin: an apologetic phrase that makes perfect sense when you have a slip of the tongue, but not if you just said a meaner version of what you meant to say all along.
One place this phrase crops up often is in apologies from organizations, politicians, media personalities, and other individuals in the public eye. Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute,” then apologized for his “choice of words.” Arkansas representative Don Young called migrant workers “wetbacks” and then apologized for his “poor choice of words.” Congressman Geoff Davis called President Obama a “boy” and then apologized for his “poor choice of words.” Dr. Ben Carson drew analogies between LGBTQ individuals and “bestiality” and then apologized, you guessed it, for his “choice of words.” Senator Harry Reid gave Obama the back-handed complement that he “had no Negro dialect” and then apologized, as usual, for “such a poor choice of words.”
You might have noticed a theme in all these examples: specifically, that these are all people expressing absolutely horrible, prejudiced things and yet they seem to think it was how they said them that mattered. In this insane upside-down world, you can hold opinions that are sexist, racist, or many other kinds of horrendous, but all that matters is the words you use to express them. The sentiment, apparently, doesn’t matter.
I assume that you, the reader, are already ahead of me at this point and have realized, if you didn’t know it already, that apologizing for “a poor choice of words” is not, in fact, apologizing. Instead it is downgrading one’s offense from believing something terrible to making some kind of slip of the tongue. “Oops! I totally meant to say something else instead of ‘subhuman mongrel.’ My bad!” “So sorry, I didn’t mean to say you were ‘a slut,’ I just accidentally said it out loud because I thought being sexist was funny. JK you guys!”
You might have noticed another insidious theme here, and I want to make it explicit because I think it is very important. Apologizing for “a poor choice of words” is the same as saying your original sentiment was fine. You are basically saying the horrible thing you said is a valid, acceptable thing to say.
So, if you happen to be a school with a dress code, say, and it happens to advise girls that “we don’t want to be looking at ‘sausage rolls’” and tells those same girls that “you can’t put 10 pounds of mud in a five-pound sack,” you should know that it is no way sufficient to apologize for “unfortunate word choices.”
Now I know horrible non-apologies are put out there all the time, but that doesn’t mean we have to condone them or perpetuate them. If you see a leader apologizing for their poor choice of words, call them on it. Twitter, Facebook, whatever—let their terrible apology writers know that we do not accept their apologizing for word choice instead of sentiment. If your friends apologize to you this way, you may want to be nicer, but gently make it clear what is and isn’t a real apology.
Because the phrase “a poor choice of words” is a indeed very poor choice of words.