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Good People Make Offensive Statements

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Good People Make Offensive Statements

By Barry Goldstein



What Can Be Learned from Trump’s Apology?
Donald Trump surprised many people when he offered an apology for some of his offensive statements.
“Sometimes, in the heat of debate and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don’t choose the right words or you say the wrong thing. I have done that. And believe it or not, I regret it. And I do regret it, particularly where it may have caused personal pain. Too much is at stake for us to be consumed with these issues. But one thing I can promise you, is this: I will always tell you the truth.”
I can provide useful insight to Trump’s many offensive statements and his apology because unlike most people writing on this topic, I have received weekly training on these issues for the past 17 years. I have served as an instructor and later also supervisor in a NY Model Batterer Program. We work hard to avoid comments that would be offensive to people who are members of disadvantaged groups and to make amends when we fail to reach our high standards. Donald Trump is a wealthy, white, heterosexual, Christian, able-bodied man. This would help explain why he has such a high sense of entitlement and the difficulty he has avoiding offensive behavior.
Being Accountable
In a society that still has substantial vestiges of racism, sexism and other oppressions, everyone is exposed to false and harmful messages that harm people who are members of disadvantaged groups. As part of the instructor training I have participated in over the last 17 years it has been interesting to watch new instructors, particularly whites and men. Almost inevitably, we will say or do something that is racist or sexist. A staff member or more experienced instructor, often from the group that was offended will stop the instructor making the offensive remark and explain why it is offensive. Every new instructor I have seen has responded by saying they were misunderstood and that was not their intention. They will be stopped and asked to listen and to understand it is almost certain that the person intervening is right.  When this happens we need to try to understand why what we said was offensive instead of trying to respond.
One of the difficulties in understanding oppressions like racism and sexism is that society expects the offense to be the kind of blatant slur we might hear from the KKK or a domestic violence abuser. Accordingly the suggestion that someone acted racist or sexist is viewed as very hurtful and the response tends to be defensive. In reality, these offenses tend to be far more subtle and usually unintentional. Good people regularly make racist and sexist comments. We view the correction of these comments as a gift to the person who made the offensive statement. It is difficult to tell someone that their statement was racist or sexist because in our society this often leads to a defensive and attacking response.  Our staff and instructors are taking a risk to provide their colleague with information that would otherwise be hard to obtain.
It is a lot easier to respond when you understand you have received a valuable gift. The offender does not need to apologize, which is a common response, but does need to respond in a manner that makes it safe for someone to provide similar gifts in the future. We want to avoid common political responses such as mistakes were made or I’m sorry you were offended.  Instead we want to acknowledge that we did something hurtful and express our intent to avoid the mistake in the future. I would acknowledge that I am racist and sexist, but I am not proud of that. I try to work hard to think about what I am saying in order to avoid offensive comments.
When I read news articles or columns that discuss racist or sexist behavior, I often see comments from people seeking to deny the offense (usually from someone they are supporting) by saying they don’t see how the statement can be considered racist or sexist.  They are literally telling the truth, but they would benefit if they tried to understand why the remark is widely viewed as offensive.
One of the problems is failing to understand the context of a discussion. If we are limited to a literal interpretation, almost everyone could agree that black lives matter, women’s lives matter and all lives matter. In the batterer classes we have sometimes discussed that if society created a similar response to attacks and murders of women as they do for police officers, domestic violence would be substantially reduced. Similarly, I believe black people would be delighted or perhaps relieved if society treated black lives as having as much value as the lives of police officers.  Those who angrily complain about the concept that black lives matter and respond with slogans that all lives matter or blue lives matter fail to consider the context that in our society the lives of police officers and the lives of white people are routinely treated as more valuable than the lives of black people. Good people can ignore the context, but in doing so, their response is racist even though that is probably not their intent. Ironically the most dangerous criminals for police officers are domestic violence offenders. If the police took domestic violence more seriously, they would save the lives of police officers. Similarly, we have seen in Dallas and elsewhere that the preventable killings of black men by police officers make police officers less safe. The valuable lesson is that making it a priority to protect women’s lives and black lives will make everyone safer.
What Can Be Learned from Trump’s Apology?
The apology Donald Trump made came as a complete surprise and is a good response if it is sincere and based on an intent to change his behavior. One problem is that the original offensive comments were deliberate, repeated often, justified and part of a large pattern of racist, sexist and other offensive behavior that has continued throughout the campaign and throughout his life. I can imagine that some of his offensive comments such as “Look at my African-American over here,” were not intended to be offensive. Other remarks such as his many slurs against women were clearly designed to hurt the people he was attacking. Significantly, many of his offensive comments drew widespread criticism, expressions of the enormous pain they caused and hurt his political standing and yet Trump made no effort to acknowledge the harm he caused over many months and years.
Accordingly, if Trump’s apology is sincere, it has to be based on a recent conversion. I believe I have improved my response to my sexism and racism since I became an instructor in the batterer program so am open to the possibility that Donald Trump could change his behavior. How can the public know if this is a sincere change or just an attempt to manipulate voters?
He could have been far more specific about what offensive behavior he is now recognizing as wrong and offensive. I don’t want him to repeat his slurs, but he can speak about the people he offended and what he can do to reduce the damage he caused. He can change his message from one of division to one of unity. He can avoid personal attacks. He can stop his appeal to white supremacist elements in our society. He can recognize, as I said in a recent article that political correctness is really moral correctness.
We have learned that racism, sexism and other oppressions have all too much power over our lives. We have to be constantly aware of our own behavior and the need to avoid offensive statements. There is a long way to go between now and election day and Donald Trump will make it clear to the public whether or not his apology was sincere.  This would not require that he never make another offensive remark, but that his reaction would be very different and that he would be working to stop his offenses. This is difficult work for someone who has lived a life of such enormous privilege, but surely something that can be accomplished if someone has a great brain and a great heart.

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Barry Goldstein

Barry Goldstein

Research Director

Barry Goldstein is a nationally recognized domestic violence author, speaker and advocate.
Barry has written some of the leading books about domestic violence and custody.
Barry has an ACE score of 0.

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