From ‘I didn’t mean that: It was just a slip of the tongue’: Racial slips and gaffes in the public arena (British Journal of Social Psychology, August 2017) by Rose Burford‐Rice and Martha Augoustinos.
Today, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle admirably covers the firing of Jeremy Kappell and its related controversies, especially so in Justin Murphy’s Jeremy Kappell fired: Slur meteorologist said has long history.
Murphy traces the history of the phrase “Martin Luther Coon” and discusses Kappell’s intention and apology. Jerome Underwood, CEO of Action for a Better Community, thinks the question of whether Kappell intended to say the slur is largely beside the point, while Dr. Idonia Owens, chief of school equity in the Rochester City School District, finds Kappell’s apology unconvincing.
To add some academic/historical context, I looked at an August 2017 article in the British Journal of Social Psychology, ‘I didn’t mean that: It was just a slip of the tongue’: Racial slips and gaffes in the public arena by Rose Burford‐Rice and Martha Augoustinos.
The article analyzes, “Speech errors, slips, and gaffes made in the public arena that are perceived to be either implicitly or explicitly racially offensive often result in signiﬁcant social consequences to the responsible speaker and generate public controversy.” Particularly relevant is the case of Rob Blair, a Las Vegas TV weatherman, who on January 15th 2005, like Kappell, used the phrase, “Martin Luther coon, King.”
In “Troubles‐in‐speaking: Racial slips” (pages 27 – 31), Burford‐Rice and Augoustinos unpack Blair’s apparent speech error:
Rob Blair, KTNV, 17/1/10. In Extract 1, weather reporter Rob Blair stumbles during a weather update, making a ‘selection error’ slip of the tongue (Aitchison, 2003), saying ‘coon’ instead of ‘King’ (7) when referring to Martin Luther King Junior Day.
Extract 1: Clip segment: 0.00‐0.25
On line 7 Blair immediately initiates, and carries out a self‐repair, completing the repair in the same‐turn constructional unit as the trouble‐source (Schegloff et al., 1977). He cuts himself off during the utterance of the word ‘coon’, replacing it with ‘King’. The trouble‐source is followed by a short pause of .2 of a second in duration. Blair does not proceed to further address his slip; instead, he continues with the weather update, perhaps to maintain fluency. He does not address, explain, or justify his self‐repair, and continues his weather report almost immediately with the proceeding words ‘junior day’, and then a pause of .2 of a second and an exhale (7‐8). This is a quick and subtle self‐repair that was perhaps judged by the speaker as having gone unnoticed. However, many listeners who heard Blair’s slip of the offensive word responded in outrage to the station. Twenty minutes after the weathercast, Blair addressed viewers; below is a text of his apology1:
On a weather report earlier this morning, I made an accidental slip of the tongue when talking about the Martin Luther King holiday, and what I said was interpreted by many viewers as highly offensive. For that I offer my deepest apology. I in no way intended to offend anyone. I’m very sorry.
Although Blair does not interpret what he said as highly offensive, he acknowledges that many of his viewers did. He justifies his error using a judgement of capacity (Martin & White, 2007), stating that it was an ‘accidental slip of the tongue’. Blair apologizes to the ‘many viewers’ who interpreted his utterances as ‘highly offensive’, first offering his ‘deepest apology’, and subsequently augmenting this with ‘I’m very sorry’. Blair uses the ‘I’m sorry’ sorry‐based unit, frequently used for face‐threatening offences (Heritage & Raymond, 2016). He uses the following characteristics of the apology formats discussed above: naming the offence + reference to wrongdoing + sorry‐based unit, however the typical order is reversed. Consistent with findings by Heritage and Raymond (2016), Blair also uses modifiers to amplify his regret (‘deepest’, ‘very’). Despite his apology, Blair lost his job as a consequence.
Both Blair and Kappell initiated and carried out “self‐repairs” by immediately following “coon” with “King” and continuing the broadcast, only to later apologize. The apologies have some similarities:
On a weather report earlier this morning, I made an accidental slip of the tongue when talking about the Martin Luther King holiday, and what I said was interpreted by many viewers as highly offensive. For that I offer my deepest apology. I in no way intended to offend anyone. I’m very sorry. (Blair)
In my mind I knew I mispronounced but there was no malice nothing that I could’ve … I had no idea the way it came across to many people. As soon as started to mispronounce it I put an emphasis on “King” and moved on. I had no idea what some people could’ve interpreted that as. I know some people did interpret it the wrong way. That is not a word I said, I promise you that. If you did feel that it hurt you in any way in any way I sincerely apologize. I would never want to tarnish the reputation of a such a great man as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the greatest civic leaders of all time. He changed the world forever and he changed the world for better. I would never do that. (From Jeremy Kappell apologizes in Facebook video, promises he did not use racial slur on TV , D & C)
Somewhat like Blair, Kappell seems not to interpret what he said as highly offensive per se, as “he had no idea what some people could’ve interpreted that as.” While more involved than Blair — and including his admiration for Martin Luther King Jr. — Kappell’s apology did not satisfy some critiques.
As reported by Murphy, Owens was disappointed in Kappell’s apology, particularly his statement: “That is not a word I said, I promise you that. If you did feel that it hurt you in any way, in any way, I sincerely apologize.” Feeling that Kappell did not adequately account for the offensiveness of the slur, Owens said when “He [Kappell] said, ‘If I hurt anyone’ — well, you did.” Owens added “There’s no ‘if’ about it. … I wish he would have apologized sincerely.”
Owens implies “the social consequences to the responsible speaker” (Burford‐Rice and Augoustinos) were justified, i.e. Kappell’s firing.
Both Blair and Kappell point to their intention — or lack thereof: accidental slip of the tongue and mispronoucement. But for Underwood intent is besides the point. As reported by Murphy:
Underwood likened the debate over Kappell’s intent to the recent incident in which two intoxicated St. John Fisher College students pulled down a statue of Frederick Douglass on Alexander Street. Focusing on intent rather than impact, he said, has the effect of shielding the wrongdoer from consequences in all but the most blatant cases.
See also “When one goes down, ten go up” and restorative justice (Talker of the Town)
Focusing on the offended audiences, Underwood adds, “You’ve got to understand the hurt we feel when we hear ‘coon.’ Something like that retraumatizes people. … It sort of rips the scabs off old wounds.”
We don’t know if a more effective apology would have saved the jobs of Blair and Kappell, especially as Kappell’s was after the fact.
Another case study in ‘I didn’t mean that: It was just a slip of the tongue’: Racial slips and gaffes in the public arena is relevant. In 2006, Dave Lenihan, a talk show host in St Louis was fired for using ‘coon’ instead of ‘coup’ while arguing that Condoleezza Rice, an African American who was Secretary of State at the time, would make a good commissioner of the NFL. Lenihan’s error differs from Blair and Kappels in that their constructions invoked a historically known slur, while Lenihan’s “error” cast Rice as a “coon.” Rice and “coon” are not historically linked like King and “coon.”
Unlike Kappell — “I’m my mind I knew I mispronounced” — Lenihan did not immediately notice his seeming speech error. Rather than immediately substituting “coon” with what he intended to say “coup,” Lenihan goes straight into an apology, including acknowledging he understands the “potential social consequences that this highly inappropriate and offensive word may have” (Burford‐Rice and Augoustinos). Lenihan’s immediate apology, nor subsequent ones, did not save his job, though Rice accepted his written letter of contrition.
THE CASE STUDY (pages 32 – 33)
Dave Lenihan, KTRS, 23/3/06. The following extract involves the same trouble‐source word, ‘coon’, but is a ‘blend’ slip of the tongue (Aitchison, 2003). It is an example of a self‐repair in which the speaker immediately repairs and also addresses the slip, apologizing profusely during recovery. Dave Lenihan, a presenter at KTRS radio station, used the offensive word, ‘coon’ instead of ‘coup’ while arguing that Condoleezza Rice, an African American who was Secretary of State at the time, would make a good commissioner of the NFL.
Extract 2: Clip segment: 0.09‐0.53
In contrast to Blair in Extract 1, Lenihan does not immediately notice his faux pas. Indeed, he stresses the offending word and moreover repeats it in a new turn constructional unit (17). Unlike Blair in Extract 1, he does not immediately substitute the word with what he intended to say; rather, he goes straight into an apology. On line 18, Lenihan exclaims ‘Oh my god’, followed by an intake of breath and a sorry‐based unit ‘sorry’ that is sped up and is proceeded by five highly graduated repetitions of the word ‘totally’. Lenihan does not repeat the trouble‐source word in his apology; instead, he uses the pronoun ‘that’, without directly specifying the offence again (Sacks 1992). Like Blair, he refers to the trouble‐source word as a ‘slip of the tongue’ (20). Thus, as soon as he detects a ‘problem of acceptability’ (Svennevig, 2008), he immediately begins repair, interrupting the flow of his talk about Rice. In contrast to Blair however, Lenhian attends to the potential social consequences that this highly inappropriate and offensive word may have. In this instance, accuracy is prioritized over fluency in an effort to minimize the social impact of the problem (Seyfeddinipur et al., 2008).
Lenihan slows down his speech when apologizing (18–19). He uses the ‘I’m sorry’ formulation + reference to the wrongdoing + account + no‐fault explanation, proceeded by a repetition of ‘totally’ that amplifies the level of regret (Biassoni et al., 2016). The repetition of the word ‘totally’ (18–19) is a common technique in apology, as it graduates and intensifies the message. In line 22, his voice becomes softer, creating the effect that he is speaking sincerely to his audience. This is followed by nervous laughter, a pause, and the resolution to ‘just take a break’ (23–24).
Lenihan explained his slip later in the day; a text of the explanation follows:2
I was trying to say “quite a coup” but it came out “coon.” I caught myself and apologised. It wasn’t anything I was meaning to say. I never use that word. I think she’s a fantastic woman. I was even talking about if she ran for president, I’d work on her campaign.
It was a most unfortunate racial slur. There can be no excuse for what was said. Dave Lenihan has been let go…. There is enough hate. We certainly are not going to fan those flames. That is not what we’re about.