Tuesday, April 9, 2013

"We are very sorry if..." means, "We're not at all sorry."

The background isn't important because "sorry if" comes up all the damn time, but if anyone is interested [footnote] because it actually takes a lot of words so explaining what brings it up this time in the body would be too much of a distraction.

Sorry is not conditional.  One cannot be in a Schrödinger's state of sorry where they're at once sorry and not sorry until such time as the box is opened and the proposition measured, and the quantum state collapsed.  It does not work that way.

It is possible to not be sorry but then discover that something previously unknown was true and as a result be sorry.  It is possible to be sorry and then discover that the thing with a previously unknown truth value was false and as a result stop being sorry.  That's as close as one can come to "sorry if".

Either you are sorry or your aren't.  There's no if about it.  It isn't conditional.

There are degrees of sorry.  One can have a tiny twinge of sorriness or crushing regret for what has been done or anywhere in the middle, but even though there's a spectrum it is still the case that one is either sorry or they are not.  There's no, "I am sorry if..." or, "We're very sorry if," because whether you are sorry in present tense does not, cannot, depend on factors unknown to you.  Causality does not function in reverse.  Learning in the future that X is true will not make you sorry in the present.  Learning in the future X is false will not make you not-sorry in the present.  And because of that, "I am/We are sorry if X," cannot be true.

Well... technically it can.  Let's say you're sorry.  Then for any proposition X the statement, "I'm sorry if X," will be true because you're sorry regardless of X.  If X is true you're sorry, if X is not true you're sorry, if X does not have a truth value, you're sorry.  The fact that you are sorry means if anything you're sorry because you're already sorry.

Similarly one can make the case that if X is impossible it would be vacuously true to say, "I'm sorry if X."  If you're not sorry then X is still impossible so therefore X is false.  Thus, by taking the contrapositive, if X is true you are sorry.

But these are technicalities that would only come to bear in the lowest forms of sophistry.  "I'm sorry if X," implies (not logical implies but the everyday meaning) that there is a relationship between being sorry and X, something that is not true in the examples where it's actually possible for the statement itself to be true.

This is not to say that sorry can never appear in conditionals, it is possible to completely honestly say, "I will be sorry if X," or, "I would be sorry if X were true," but in the first case one is talking about the future, and in the second it's a contrary to fact.  When used as a straightforward non-sophistic statement, "I'm sorry if X," is a lie.


It's a lie that has several benefits.  First off, it doesn't stand out as an obvious lie because there are other areas where you can have the same form, "I am [adjective] if X," and have it be true.  For example, "I am wrong if X," is totally legitimate.  Whether the person is right or wrong is unknown to them at this time, but X would mean they're wrong.  So, "I'm sorry if X," isn't going to get you called out as a liar as fast as some bullshit.

It is also a form that's often used as an informal shorthand for, "I X happens then I will be sorry, but since I already know this fact now, before I know whether or not X will happen, I'm mentioning the potential future sorriness now," which can absolutely be true and thus can be said in good faith.

So already the form of the lie provides you some cover against being called out as a liar.

But no one would need cover for saying the lie if there weren't an upside to saying the lie in the first place.

The first benefit is that it allows you to go through all of the motions of an apology without actually apologizing.  So you don't need to admit any fault or blame or thing to be sorry for, you just go through the motions and say it only applies if something is true, something you either don't know the truth value of, or pretend not to know the truth value of.

That means that whenever in the future someone brings up whatever it is you're not actually sorry for, you can point to the "sorry if" statement as your final word on the matter and since it has all the motions of an actual apology it looks good if given a cursory glance.

The lie gives you the benefits of an apology without an actual apology.

That's always fun.

It also serves to whack the other position but do so in a way that makes them look ungracious if they point out that you're still in attack mode.  "I'm sorry if X," means that X is unknown.  Consider:

"I'm sorry if I hit you in the head with a baseball bat."

The "if" makes it so the assault is brought into question.  Sure, maybe it happened, but maybe it didn't.  Who can say?  Thus the position, "You did hit me in the head with a baseball bat," is undermined by the false apology.  But if the person hit in the head argues the point, showing their stitches, and medical records, and surveillance video and whatnot then to any onlookers that person will seem to be the one being a jerk because: "He just apologized to you and you're keeping the argument alive."

It's a way to get in the last word or force your opponent into a trap.  Either the last word is "if" in which case the truth value of the thing is left unresolved (meaning you either won or tied the argument) or the other side looks like jerks who aren't willing to let things go even after they've been apologized to and the matter should close.  Ungracious jerkheaded bastards.

On top of that if it's of the form, "I'm sorry if anyone was X," it allows you to take a stab not just at the other side's argument, but at the other side as individuals.  At this point you know that someone was X (hurt, offended, hit in the head with a baseball bat, robbed, wrongfully evicted, wrongfully convicted, wrongfully executed, inconvenienced, annoyed) otherwise you wouldn't be apologizing.  So since you know that someone was/some people were, and you're still acting like it's unknown whether anyone was, you're not counting that someone/those people as part of anyone.  You're not counting them as people.  You are denying their personhood.

That's not accidental, by the way.  If someone wanted to be honest and be respectful and not class those they're pretending to apologize to as subhuman non-persons they'd say, "I'm sorry for/to all who were Xed." Making it an if statement is to erase the other people, call into question the Xing, not actually apologize, reap the benefits of apologizing, and make anyone who takes issue with you being a total asshole by making it an if statement look like they're the jerk.

It's the easiest thing in the world to offer an actual apology or to say that you really are sorry.  The non-apology "I'm not really sorry," form of, "I am/we are sorry if..." is a rhetorical trick to make multiple jabs at the opposition, cast basic facts into doubt (to your advantage) and gain the high ground by making any response seem like it's unseasonable instead of illuminating the fact that you're being unreasonable.

So to the exact phrasing used in the title, "We are very sorry if..." means:
  1. We're not sorry.
  2. We want to muddy the waters by confusing the facts of the case.
  3. Because it was an "if [...] anyone" case: those we're supposedly apologizing to don't count as real people.
  4. Anyone attempting to point out the sophistic bullshit we just pulled is the unreasonable one, not us.
And that's what the conditional sorry always means with the possible exception of three.

It's a way to look like you're doing the right thing without actually doing it.  It's a way to look like you're apologizing without apologizing.  It's a way to attack your opponents without looking like you're doing it.  It's a way to deny what are usually known facts under the guise of saying you're sorry.  It's a way to position yourself to be defended against the repercussions of any of the shit you just pulled.

It's all about winning at any cost and broadcasts a total lack of remorse to those who stop to listen but seems like an apology who just let it glide on by.  It's a way to be a total asshole while making the casual observer think you're anything but.

It's not about the people who it's supposedly addressed to.  From Thank You For Smoking:
Joey: But you still didn't convince me.
Nick: Because I'm not after you. I'm after them. [Points to nonexistent onlookers.]
It's about the onlooker, the hoi polloi.  The people not paying enough attention to notice that, "I'm sorry if," isn't, "I'm sorry," the people not paying enough attention to notice that the personhood of the people supposedly being apologized to is under attack, the people not paying enough attention to notice that "is" has been replaced with "if" in a rhetorical attempt to call into question everything that made a (fake) apology necessary, the people not paying enough attention to realize that this was all a method of positioning and framing to influence onlookers to see things the way the speaker wants them to see it while at the same time claiming the last word for themselves.

The person who says, "I'm sorry if," doesn't care about the person or group they're addressing, they care about the lurkers.  The people who aren't involved enough in the argument to notice the bullshit on display in an "I'm sorry if" statement, but are involved enough to skim what's been going on.  Because those people can be persuaded without having to actually change your position at all.

Also, on a much more minor note, it's a way to (attempt to) have it both ways.

"I'm sorry if" means that for those who think an apology isn't appropriate they can say that the if is false and therefore there's no sorry feeling.  For those who think there should be an apology they think the if is true, and therefore the subject is sorry.  Behold the power of bullshit.

But the most basic thing is this, "I'm sorry if X," means, "I'm not sorry."  "We are very sorry if X," means, "We're not actually sorry."  Because "sorry" and "if" don't go together that way.  You either are or are not sorry.  There's no conditional.  Whether you will be sorry in the future is of course subject to change, but whether you're sorry now isn't dependent on any conditional.

When someone pulls out the "sorry if" they're lying.


[footnote] Microsoft, apparently as part of its efforts to prove they can reach depths similar to the ones Apple has attained, might be considering a certain stupid feature in their next X-Box.

It would be silly to say that we live in a post racial society, but the progress that has been made on racial equality makes it much harder to target non-whites than it previously was.  When legally enforced segregation made it so you could say that, to at least a certain degree, the white people were over here, everyone else was over there, and such it made it easier to target people not like yourself if you were an angry white guy.

Now you have to go for looking at statistics and demographic figures and whatnot.  You have to find what disproportionately affects the non-white population you want to target and then work with that.

Of course, for anyone asking why you're working with that the fact that none of your non-racist stated reasons hold up to scrutiny and that there is an obvious racist reason hanging over the issue like a giant neon sign will quickly become apparent.

So, anyway, Microsoft may or may not have tracked down one of the areas where you can target people by race and used it as a central component in the new X-Box.  Internet access, you see, breaks down along racial lines.  It's not like segregation where you had people neatly sorted on either side of the line, instead it's just a question of percentages.  Target the people on this side of the line and you'll disproportionately be targeting white people.  Target people on the other side of the line and you'll disproportionately be targeting non-white people.  Either way you'll hit members of each group, it's just a question of which group you're aiming at and which group you're accepting as acceptable collateral.

Now anyone can use an X-box provided they get one in the first place and have power.  Maybe they saved up for two years to buy it, maybe it was a gift, maybe they bought it with ease, maybe whatever.  But once they get the X-Box it's completely race neutral.  Is it an X-Box?  Is it plugged in?  If the answer to both of those questions is, "Yes," then whoever can use an X-Box.  It's not very racist.  Sort of the opposite really.

So how to fix this and make it racist?  Well two paragraphs up we noted that internet access breaks down along racial lines, so tie the workings of the X-Box to whether you can connect to the internet and how you connect if you can and you'll make this non-racist object racist.  Make it so, even in single player, it only works if you're online and congratulations, you've managed to make an X-Box something that is disproportionately what it's advertised as for white people and disproportionately a doorstop for non-white people.  Racism achieved.

Microsoft may or may not have done that.  That's just the background.

With the news that Microsoft may have achieved racism where previously they were stuck with colorblindness naturally came questions.

Enter Adam Orth.

Adam Orth is the creative director in good standing of Microsoft Studio.

Adam Orth explained that when it comes to those who might suffer under this racism achieved system, "Those people should get with the times," (this was after pretending that "those people" don't exist.)  When it was pointed out that the people who would suffer under the racism achieved system weren't just those targeted by racism but also everyone who lived in rural areas the response was to ask why on earth he'd ever live in a rural area.

See living in a rural area is always a choice, and furthermore it's always the wrong choice.  And if you make this always wrong choice you shall never again be allowed to play Halo, this I say unto you.  Or something like that.

And other concerns were similarly dismissed.  For example creating strawman arguments in an attempt to make those who disagreed with his position (that "those people" should simply choose to live in an urban center with easy access to the internet and connect to it the way he thinks is right and not make noise) look like idiots, saying, "DEAL WITH IT" on a picture of Obama because nothing is like taking a picture of black man and using it to appropriate him for your side when you're a white guy in favor of policies that disproportionately negatively affect non-white people.

And, finally, he claimed that following pop star related news was more important than the whole thing anyway.

Later, privately, he is said to have reported that he was just "trolling" but since that was private it's difficult to say for sure whether it's true.  It does bring up an interesting question.  If he meant what he said then he is an asshole.  If he didn't mean what he said but was instead trolling then he is an asshole.  Does it really matter if he meant what he said?

Anyway Microsoft commented on the whole thing.  At this point there were of course two issues:
1 Microsoft may or may not be integrating as feature into their next X-Box that would make the question of who can use it be one tied up with race, class, and location, where not integrating the feature would make the only question be whether one could get one in the first place.
2 Adam Orth is an asshole, and pretty damn vocal about it.

Microsoft responded thus:
We apologize for the inappropriate comments made by an employee on Twitter yesterday. This person is not a spokesperson for Microsoft, and his personal views do not reflect the customer centric approach we take to our products or how we would communicate directly with our loyal consumers.  We are very sorry if this offended anyone, however we have not made any announcements about our product roadmap, and have no further comment on this matter.
Now much of that is boiler plate but when you strip it down to it's bare bones it becomes:
1 We apologize.  We are sorry if...
2 The comments were inappropriate.
3 We're totes not inappropriate like the comments are.
4 And that's all we have to say about that.

Point one is the point of this post.  "We're sorry if," means, "We're not actually sorry," which means that it's not a real apology.  It isn't even an apology in the original sense of the word (see Socrates and/or Christian apologists) except perhaps in a, "That's a really crap defense, my pebble goes for guilty," kind of way.

Point two is true, but note that they're not actually sorry about the inappropriateness of the comments. If they were then there would be no "if" it would just be "We're sorry."  Because that period is where it would need to end.  The only possible extension of the sentence beyond that would be to say that the state of being sorry had pushed them into some kind of action, like doing something about the asshole Adam Orth or trying to make sure their employees wouldn't be assholes to marginalized groups again.

Instead whether or not they even claim to be sorry is tied up in whether anyone was offended.  The inappropriateness of the comments does not bother them, only that people read them and may have reacted to them as is appropriate.  That's what the "if" means.  It means they're down with inappropriate comments provided they don't kick up a shitstorm.

The "if" also means that they themselves were not offended.  They recognized the inappropriateness of the comments, but did not take offense, did not feel offense, were just generally not in the same room as being offended.  Because if they had been offended then they wouldn't be able to pull, "if this offended anyone," since they, a group that does fulfill the position of "anyone", would have been.  If they'd been offended, "We are very sorry if this offended anyone," would logically collapse into, "We are very sorry," because of how conditionals work.

So, they recognized the comments as inappropriate but weren't offended by them or sorry regarding them.  That's the message they're broadcasting.

But there's something else that's not quite in the text.  It is instead in subtext that requires context to understand.

The only reason that they know about the inappropriate comments is because those comments offended enough people to cause a minor shitstorm.  In other words: they knew someone had been offended before a single word of that was thought up.  Yet still they said, "if this offended anyone," in so doing they implicitly made the claim that they didn't know of anyone, at least anyone worthy of consideration, who had been offended.

The very people who were responsible for bringing the matter to a point where it got their attention are dismissed as not counting as being human enough to merit consideration when asking whether anyone was offended.

I think that covers points 1 and 2.

Point 3 is utter bullshit.  Adam may not be a spokesperson for them but in their own message they clearly communicated that while they recognized the comments as inappropriate they had no problem with the comments per se, just with the fact that people might have certain reactions to them, and furthermore condemned everyone they knew of who reacted to the comments appropriately as not really counting.  Subhuman or some such.

The message from Microsoft may start with, "We apologize... This person is not a spokesperson ... his personal views do not reflect [our own]," but the message does point out that certainly no one involved in crafting the message found the views expressed to be offensive and they'd only feel bad about it if it had an adverse affect amoung the potential consumer base, and they have no problem with the comments in themselves. Also, it makes sure to clearly demonstrate that in the eyes of Microsoft everyone who made the fact they were offended clear does not count as anyone.

Adam Orth should take lessons from these people on how to be an asshole because they've got it down better than him.

And finally we reach point 4.  This was their response to an important employee at their company being an asshole with respect to class, race, and region.  If you're poor, or not white, or live in a non-urban area, or any combination of the three Adam Orth thinks you don't count.  The middle proposition wasn't stated outright, it's one of those things where you have to look at the statistics to understand, but the poor and living in rural areas was stated pretty clearly.

Mircosoft has nothing more to say on the matter.

Not, "We've explained to Adam Orth that we do in fact care about customers who are poor/rural/non-white/some-combination," not, "We're making sure Adam Orth is only allowed to work in areas where his blatant prejudices cannot come into play," not, "We're trying to make sure none of our employees do the same assholic thing in the future," (that would be doomed to fail, by the way.  Freedom of speech grants assholes the right to be assholes.)  Not anything that gives any indication that they actually care about what happened beyond being able to say, "We apologized for that, moving on," and point to the first two words of their non-apology: "We apologize".

No, they've indicated that they don't give a damn and followed it with saying that they're done, no further comment.

Or to sum it all up, they said:
We recognize that the comments in question were inappropriate but we ourselves do not find them offensive nor do we have enough respect for those who were offended to count them as people.  The person who made the comments doesn't speak for us.  We won't feel bad unless someone who we do count as a person is offended and that hasn't happened yet.  That is all, we have nothing more to say, I SAID GOOD DAY, SIR!
That's not how you say, "We're very sorry," if you mean it.


  1. Thank you for this, the most I came up with was *seetherage*. This reminds me very much of a non-apology I used to get: "I'm sorry you're angry." Which pretty much meant, "I don't like that you are mad at me." Not, "I'm sorry for my actions."

  2. Part of this comes from the contingency-fee culture. You can't say "we're sorry that all those people were offended", because one of them may turn round and say "aha, you admitted it, mental anguish, lawyers".

    As usual, there's a lot more hedging around the issue than is actually necessary...

    1. If someone could pull off a successful lawsuit for Microsoft saying, "We're very sorry and will try to make sure this sort of thing never happens again, but there's only so much we can do as most of our employees don't speak for us and may, as in this case, hold views we vehemently disagree with. Their freedom of speech prevents us from stopping them from saying hurtful things, provided they do it on their own time with their own resources."

      First off I'd be very impressed (especially since Microsoft can afford the very best lawyers) because there doesn't seem to be much there to sink them. But second I'm not sure how Microsoft putting out a public press release saying that the potential suing party isn't really a person, which is what they did do, would put them on more firm legal ground.

      If they apologized for real they'd just be saying that they're sorry, but it wasn't in their power to stop it. The first because that's what an apology means. The second because when apologizing about this sort of thing it's expected that you'll say what you'll do to stop it from happening again, which in this case requires acknowledging that there's not a lot they could do. Microsoft legally couldn't have stopped it because it would have required:
      1 Predicting the future.
      2 Preventing the predicted future by illegally suppressing an employee's right to free speech.

      Not going to happen. Thus an actual apology would have contained a statement that they weren't at fault, but rather than being a clear and cynical attempt to protect their asses it would be by way of explanation of how their ability to stop this kind of thing from happening again is limited.

    2. Oh, I quite agree. Hence "more hedging than is necessary" - people use a legal climate as an excuse to do all sorts of things that it does not in fact require. (This is also why "health and safety" is used as a general-purpose reason for councils in the UK to shut down activities they don't like.)

  3. To be fair to microsoft, they fired the bum.


    I generally assume that the people posting such things are not actually authorized to speak for the company any more than the executive who mouthed off does (in fact, probably less so), hence the apology containing nothing except distancing from the previous comments. The message I assume they're trying to get across is:

    1: We didn't say that, this one guy did.
    2: Please don't hate us.

    -- especially when it's coupled, as this one is, with the initial transgressor getting their walking papers.

    1. Certainly a good first step, if it were a first step. As is it comes after they've said both that they're not sorry and that they have nothing more to say beyond the statement in which they said they're not sorry. That kind of messes things up.

      Given their statement it seems like they're getting rid of him not for being a racist, classist, regionalist (I think that's the term for someone who thinks people in certain areas, in this instance rural ones, can go fuck themselves) asshole, but for being caught.

      In fact their original, "We are very sorry if..." statement made it explicit that they didn't have any problem with what he said, just that people noticed he said it.

      Basically, firing him is harder to take as a sign they're not being asses with respect to the matter when they've already come out and said that as far as their concerned the problem isn't what he said but that people noticed him saying it.

      "We don't want our employees to be complete and utter assholes, especially not to already marginalized groups," is the position they should have taken, "We don't want our employees to be publicly caught doing that," is the position they did take.

      Since both of those positions would tend to make them want to get rid of Orth, them getting rid of Orth doesn't really do anything to change my perception of their position from what they said it was.

      All of that said, getting rid of Orth is definitely better than not getting rid of Orth. While, "We have no problem if you do it, we won't even be offended if you do, but don't get caught," (Microsoft's stated position) is a morally wrong position to take, enforcing it by cutting the ones who do get caught is much better than not doing so.

    2. The interpretation I'm mostly seeing on the technical side is "we're very sorry that anyone found out about this plan; we don't actually care what colour our users are, as long as we get to spy on them and sell their personal data (just like Google, and you thought we were behind the times), and now we're going to have to pretend for a little while that we won't be doing that".

    3. What I'm hearing from the technical side is that they don't want to talk about it yet, but it's looking more and more like the position the asshole Adam Orth was defending in ways that were more assholic than, strictly speaking, necessary is in fact true.

  4. Milk it for all you can media. Use racism for rating and create animosity between the people. I see the media as being the worst culprit of all of this. They are trying to create a civil war.