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

Without the S word, Minchin shows true intent

Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yvette Cooper campaigning in London at the launch of Labour’s women’s manifesto  

I want the Labour Party to lead a revolution in family support

Yvette Cooper
Liz Kendall  

Labour leadership contest: 'Moderniser' is just a vague and overused label

Steve Richards
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine