To err is human: how do we keep our feet out of our mouths in the first place?

apologizing for hidden bias

Last week, legal marketing guru Larry Bodine put his foot in it with a blog post describing the “Best ‘Elevator Pitch’ Ever…?”, courtesy of a “silver-haired senior-most litigator” who relies on a cheap joke about the Holocaust to woo business clients.

Bodine’s readers responded with outrage, and, to his credit, Bodine deleted the post from his blog and offered an apology that mediator Victoria Pynchon has described as “heart-felt”:

I sincerely apologize for the crude and offensive “Elevator Pitch” post I put online last week. In the clear light of morning, it is clear that it was anti-Semitic and repellent. I want to thank all the people who commented and called me about it; I listened and took what you said to heart.

I have deleted the post. It was a mistake to repeat a crude joke that I heard in rural Illinois, and I should have known better. It was a worse mistake to say it was the “best” of its kind, when actually it was hideous.

Curiously, at Legal Blog Watch, a well regarded blogger approvingly repeated Bodine’s anecdote in a post captioned “Great Elevator Pitch for Lawyers“. Quickly realizing her error, and showing true character and class, she amended her post to apologize sincerely for her mistake:

Law firm public relations expert Rich Klein makes the important point at his blog that an elevator speech making light of the Holocaust is offensive. Klein is right and I apologize to anyone whom this post may have offended.

Although Bodine’s apology has earned the praise of some, not everyone was willing to let him off the hook so easily, including one blogger from a family of Holocaust survivors.

But what interests me about this whole event is not so much the apologies that resulted, or their acceptance or rejection. Instead, I wonder how it is that two people, one who recounted the anecdote and one who repeated it, missed its offensiveness the first time around. That they did is a lesson in humility for all of us.

In a post published in The Situationist in the aftermath of the Don Imus firing last year, authors Jon Hanson and Michael McCann mused,

…the stereotypes that we purport to abhor when articulated explicitly reside within most of us unexamined and unchallenged, sometimes wielding influence on our cognitions and behavior. We are, in a way, all carriers of the same virus…

What happened to these two bloggers could happen to you or me.  We, too, are susceptible; it is all too easy for any of us to err.  Without warning, we can all be deaf to the import of our words, blind to their effect.  In the end, we can only learn from incidents like these.  As James Joyce wrote, “A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.” Experiences such as these can build our immunity to the viruses within us.  And healing will come — through prevention and, yes, through apologies.

One response to “To err is human: how do we keep our feet out of our mouths in the first place?

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