Never Apologize, Never Explain

April 19, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

In their research on celebrity apologies, Karen Cerulo and Janet Ruane found that the most effective apologies are simple admissions of fault. “I did it. It was wrong. I won’t do it again.”  Forget about excuses, explanations, and denials.  Yesterday’s post gave two recent examples – an effective apology (James Franco), and a less effective denial (Jenny McCarthy). 

Unfortunately, Cerulo and Ruane did not include those celebrities who simply ignored the reported misdeeds, celebrities who followed the advice of John Wayne in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” – “Never apologize and never explain – it’s a sign of weakness.”

That was almost exactly the strategy adopted by Zygmunt Bauman, distinguished sociologist, author of several dozen books. 


A graduate student at Cambridge, Peter Walsh, was reading one of Bauman’s recent books, Does the Richness of the Few Benefit Us All? and wondered why Bauman was not using more recent data. So he started checking out some of Bauman’s sources, only to discover not only that the distinguished sociologist had plagiarized but that he hadn’t been very careful about the validity of his sources.
He appears to have found [online] evidence to support his claims and stopped there. . . .  He hasn’t shown any desire to check the facts, statistics and quotes in his sources, and that is fairly elementary.

Rather than apologize or explain, Bauman went first for the denial – a carefully limited denial:
 [I] never once failed to acknowledge the authorship of the ideas or concepts that I deployed, or that inspired the ones I coined.
The accusation was not that he plagiarized ideas and concepts but passages from Wikipedia and other sources.

Then he pulled rank.  He got all huffy and supercilious, suggesting that his accusers were pitiful pedants and that the rules of plagiarism were, at least as concerned him, wrongheaded.
All the same, while admiring the pedantry of the authors of the Harvard Guide to Using Sources, and acknowledging their gallant defence of the private ownership of knowledge, I failed in those 60-odd years to spot the influence of the obedience to technical procedural rules of quotations on the quality (reliability, effectiveness and above all social importance) of scholarship: the two issues that Mr Walsh obviously confuses.
As his co-worker in the service of knowledge, I can only pity him.
Which is a fancy way of saying, “Following the rules about plagiarism does not improve the quality of your work.” The corollary is “My work is so great that I don’t have to follow the rules.”

We can’t know the general reaction to Bauman’s statements. The Times Higher Education article (here) has only five comments, but all of them are negative. One characterizes Bauman’s response as “really despicable.”

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