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AN News: “Taking Full Accountability (but None of the Blame)” by Aaron Ansell (Virginia Tech)

Last year, in the midst of a campus mobilization led by Black students that rocked the U of Missouri (“Mizzou”), we caught a glimpse of a particular breed of non-apology, one anchored in Christian neoliberalism and felicitous of white privilege.

I’m referring to the November 9th resignation speech of Tim Wolfe, former President of Mizzou. Wolfe’s resignation represented a win for campus activists who through protests, encamped demonstrations, a hunger strike, and a historic strike of many football players, publicized the endemic racial injustice at Mizzou.

Here I offer no comment about the protests, the injustices that motivated them, the culpability of Wolfe’s administration, or the wave of similar activism that arose across dozens US universities in late 2015. I just want to examine Wolfe’s speech because in it he employs a discursive formula that allows a speaker to, in Wolfe’s words, “take full accountability” while still asserting his underlying blamelessness.

A “full” 475-word transcript of the resignation speech can be found on the University’s website, and video footage exists on multiple media outlets, (e.g. NY TimesFox4Good Morning America). Let me outline a sequence of Wolfe’s verbal actions (hereafter “Moments”) within the speech:

  1. He announces that he is resigning, and claims he is doing so out of love for the school and the state itself.
  2. He claims that some will mourn while others will rejoice in his decision
  3. He addresses activists to acknowledge that their “frustration” is real
  4. He addresses his “friends and supporters” to acknowledge that their “frustration” is real.
  5. He poses the question, “why did we get to this very difficult situation” and answers it by saying that “We stopped listening to each other. We didn’t respond or react. We got frustrated with each other and we forced individuals… to take immediate… and unusual steps to effect change.”
  6. He asserts, “This is not, I repeat not, the way change should come about. Change comes from listening, learning, caring and conversation. We have to respect each other enough to stop yelling at each other and start listening, and quit intimidating each other.”
  7. He announces, “I stand before you today, and I take full accountability for this frustration, and I take full responsibility for the inaction that has occurred.”

Let’s pause here to note a couple of things. First, Wolfe’s assertion of love places him outside a conflict between two frustrated camps. These two camps seem equally guilty for spoiling Mizzou’s moral community; they’re yelling at one another. Here, Wolfe partakes of a long tradition whereby white, male elites dismiss the grievances of hitherto silenced groups by labeling their expression as “uncivil or impolite,” or “shrill” in the case of feminists (Lakoff in Lakoff and Ide 2005: 36-37). This impoliteness then functions as a common denominator commensurating racist speech with outcries against racist speech. This sets up a contrast between the temperate Wolfe and the captious community at war with itself. Wolfe floats above that conflict insofar as the school and the state (the objects of his love) encompass the members of both camps (Moments 1-5). And so the “We” in Moment 6 now seems like the collective “we, the community,” as voiced by that community’s authorized agent.

Yet just as Wolfe completes his ascent above the conflict, he swan dives into opprobrium (Moment 8). Through this sequenced, two part-formula (ascent-descent), he fashions himself into a sacrificial lamb by tapping into an ideological matrix marked by Christian ideals of love (Pauline agape) and figurations of martyrdom. In order to secure these contextual features as his audience’s interpretive backdrop, he goes on:

  1. Wolf asks “everybody” to “use my resignation to heal and to start talking again, to make the changes necessary…”
  2. He reiterates that his motivation is love for the institution, “not hate.”
  3. He cites the scripture that has given him (and hopefully the audience: “you”) strength, “God is our refuge and strength and ever present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).
  4. He appeals to the community, “please, please use this resignation to heal, not to hate. And let’s move forward…”
  5. He concludes, “God bless all of you and thank you for this opportunity to serve the University of Missouri.”

If apologies are instances of “negative politeness” that sacrifice the speaker’s face to redeem that of the aggrieved party, the Christian overtones of Wolfe’s sacrifice suggest that the community’s redemption (expressed in therapeutic register as “healing”) hinges on his very innocence (Brown and Levinson 1987). The beauty of this formula for not-quite-apologizing is that the speaker sidesteps the risk of seeming mealy-mouthed, of not facing the music. In fact, Wolfe’s speech captures the upright masculinity of the plain-speaking Puritan who “stand[s] before you today,” submitting himself to community judgment without artifice (see Bauman 1984). This performance of “taking accountability” casts a moral glow over Wolfe’s non-admission of liability. He comes off as an adept navigator of a world rife with litigious scrutiny, the kind of guy your CEO will be eager to scoop up.

Wolfe’s speech shapes its reception by weaving together fragments of neoliberal governance, American language ideology, and evangelical concerns about the persecution the nation’s traditional moral standard-bearers. He seems to encourage his audience to walk away from their televisions shaking their heads with lamentations like “What is this country coming to?” Wolfe figures himself as a pillar supporting an imperiled moral order, one in which racial hierarchy appears as mutual respect and social harmony. This is how the speech banks on, and further naturalizes, white privilege.

There is nothing inherent to this formula for an accountability-taking non-apology that binds it to scenarios of race-based political upheaval. On the contrary, its potency resides in its portability to powerful institutions where it serves as a neoliberal micro-ritual of transparency, accountability, and damage control. Yet the formula is best suited to speakers whose authority to animate established power is hard to challenge; indeed, it reinforces the power structures that put Wolfe and others like him in this position of blameless accountability.