Katy Guest: 'Sorry' is glib. This apology means more

Without the S word, Minchin shows true intent

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They say that sorry is the hardest word. Bankers seem to think so, as well as politicians and presenters of Top Gear. A litigious culture convinces us that apologising for our mistakes can only lead to trouble, and that the best solution is to get defensive and lie. Perversely, this is why I respect the comedian Tim Minchin even more for not saying "sorry" after he was pulled up publicly for an offensive remark.

First, full disclosure: I am a pathetic fan of Minchin. I am awed by the genius of his linguistic trickery. I want to ask him if a fake ginger like me is ever allowed to "call another ginger ginger". His song "If I Didn't Have You (I would probably have somebody else)" is my "our tune". But when he made a joke on Channel 4's 8 Out of 10 Cats about a "tranny", I winced. The Independent on Sunday Pink List last week highlighted the fights and achievements of transgender people; our corresponding news story showed the shocking rise in hate crime against them. Jokes about "trannies" do not help.

Sarah Brown, a Cambridge city councillor (and number 28 on the Pink List), contacted Minchin on Twitter to reprimand him gently: "I love your work, but please lay off the 'tr*nny' jokes. Some of us find that really offensive." And so began a discussion between Brown, Minchin, their followers, and the organisation Trans Media Watch. Minchin said he'd had no idea that the word was offensive: "I have drag friends who use it... Not defending my ignorance, just letting you know." He did some research, and soon understood why transgender people were so upset.

Trans Media Watch asked if he would apologise. "To what end?" Minchin asked. "I was interested in this, sought more information, and politely answered questions." Followers of both sides pitched in to defend their team, many of them by attacking the other. Both sides told their fans to lay off.

Minchin is not the only comedian recently to refuse to apologise for causing offence. When Ricky Gervais was told off for a joke about "mongs", he decided defiantly to repeat it. Just like Chris Moyles using the word "gay" as an insult, he argued that the English language has moved on.

Tell that to the playground bullies who copy celebrities when they torment their victims, was the response of people to whom those words are used in hate. Moyles was cleared by the BBC, and was later accused of homophobia again. Gervais eventually bowed to public pressure to apologise, but by then it was hard to believe in the sincerity of his sorryness.

Minchin's reaction was far more measured. Let's not forget: this is a man who makes a living as the funniest PC liberal ever to sit in front of a piano, and no such person likes to be told that he is an unwitting transphobe. Sometimes, "sorry", like "I love you", is the easiest word: the linguistic version of a get-out-of-jail-free card. But demonstrating contrition, like demonstrating love, takes more effort. Or, as Minchin put it: "[I have learnt] that grown people seem to think demanding & receiving an apology has inherent value. Apologies are about intent." He also admitted that he is "too proud... to succumb to hectoring". Instead, he diplomatically pointed out to his 246,000 Twitter followers that "tranny" jokes are not acceptable.

At the end of a day of Twitter opprobrium, some of which looked a lot like bullying, Minchin had still not used the word "sorry". "I am not interested in PR or those who think that's what matters," he tweeted. He ended by passing on the other thing he had learnt that day: that "A word is as offensive as those who have been victimised by it tell us it is. That's why I won't use the term again."

Trans Media Watch are now friends with Minchin, and they call his public learning experience a positive result. I call it a real apology.

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