The politics of apology

Late last year, fashion designer Trelise Cooper was accused of perpetrating “colonial violence in floral polyester.” Cooper had named a tiered dress with a trailing hem: “Trail of Tiers.”

Unfortunately, that sounds a lot like Trail of Tears, a series of forced death marches Native American tribes were sent on by the US Government between 1830-1850.

A New Zealand academic, Professor Joanna Kidman, discovered the dress online and posted “I guess it’s cool to be ironic about genocide” on Twitter. Twitter produced headlines; Trelise Cooper swiftly apologised.

She shouldn’t have.

True, not apologising seems un-Kiwi. Even if you haven’t sought to upset someone in person, but find you have, the most polite thing you can do is say sorry, and move on.

That’s how we resolve these things person-to-person.

But this is not a person-to-person situation, and it’s about more than a fashion faux pas.

Trelise Cooper didn’t know about the American Trail of Tears. “The mistake was made out of ignorance,” she wrote in her apology. Use of “ignorance” suggests she should have known more about U.S. history.


The event occurred in another country.

In the US, they’re still struggling to teach the topic properly to high school students. We’ve only just mandated our own curriculum about New Zealand history.

Ignorance implies an uncommon lack of awareness. Not knowing something is quite different.

Had Trelise Cooper released a “Parihaka party” dress, that would be outrageous.

New Zealanders should reasonably be expected to know our own history and racial insensitivity and injustice shouldn’t go unchallenged. But everyone can’t be expected to know everything.

Once, as a social experiment for television, I spent the day asking random people to name the Leader of the Opposition.

Most had no idea.

Ignorance implies an uncommon lack of awareness. Not knowing something is quite different.

Also, intent matters. We know this from disciplining our kids. If Tommy meant to hit Sally, he goes to time out. If he didn’t, we’d encourage him to be careful and show compassion, but he isn’t reprimanded the same way.

So what was Trelise Cooper guilty of, actually?

She was “guilty” of using a sound-alike phrase that accurately described her own design. The person who found this and made the connection didn’t contact the fashion label directly; instead posting derisively on social media, directing others to the perceived slight.

If all of this sounds familiar, Trelise Cooper has apologised in the past for putting Native American headdress on runway models. And a couple of months before this brouhaha, Professor Kidman was praising people on Twitter for generating signatures to a petition against what she called the racist sacking of Waikato professors.

One of the subjects of the petition later said that people need to tone it down on Twitter.

All of this is a somewhat mild example of a much bigger problem within the social media and news media eco-system.

We know the script too well: public accusation, amplification, pile-on, apology.

Sadly Cooper’s apology doesn’t address the fundamental problems with this kind of culture of public shaming I’ve described.

Yes, it does divert the online heat and headlines away from the target…but in the long term, the cyber rage continues to blaze. Perhaps it’s even magnified.

Anger comes from a natural moral desire to end injustice—a righteous indignation. It is right to want to bring an end to racial injustice and for people to not want to perpetuate insensitivity.

But how righteous is it to incinerate someone publicly when you don’t know whether they’re erring deliberately?

Moral ends aren’t justified by immoral means. And trying to embarrass, shame, and terrorise un-knowing people into submission may be the road to clickbait, but it isn’t the road to cultural growth and mutual understanding.

Perhaps Professor Kidman could have contacted Trelise Cooper directly before the Twitter maelstrom.

They might have had a private conversation. If that approach doesn’t work out, by all means, dial up the mob…

We need more authenticity in our discussions of these issues, not less. And we don’t need performances of outrage, or apology.

We can do better.

Let’s give the real thing a try.

  • Tim Wilson
  • First published by the Maxim Institute – republished with permission.
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