Now THAT’S An Apology: Chuck Klosterman (“The Ethicist”) Shows The Way

Chuck Klosterman, "The Ethicist," stands tall.

Chuck Klosterman, “The Ethicist,” stands tall.

In the past I have been very critical of  The New York Times’ current writer of  its “The Ethicist” column,  but there is no denying that Chuck Klosterman knows how to make an apology. Indeed, responding to a sensitive situation, he may have offered the most exemplary apology I have ever heard or read.

“A Typical Son” is a perceptive and moving blog that documents the life experiences of a young boy with Down Syndrome and his parents. His mother occasionally  posted an open letter to Mr. Klosterman on the blog, citing his multiple uses of the words “retard” and “retarded” in various published works (Chuck was a film and TV reviewer prior to “The Ethicist” gig) over the past decade. She wrote in part…

“…Today people with cognitive disabilities and their allies are asking members of society to refrain from using the word “retarded” (along with all mutations of the word)… My question to you: Is it ethical to contribute to the denigration of the vulnerable? I am particularly interested because you, Chuck Klosterman, are The Ethicist for the New York Times” and the author of the following [examples of denigrating or mocking references to the mentally handicapped]…. Mr. Klosterman, you appear to be an unrepentant hater of people with cognitive disabilities. You are not using the word in an “I don’t mean it like that way…” sort of ignorance which I think would be much easier to redress. You are using the word in a “Those people are exactly who I am talking about” way.

Please enlighten me: What are the ethics of using the R-word? I am the mother of a seven-year-old son who has Down syndrome.  I believe your response to my question could make all the difference in the world.”

Here is Klosterman’s remarkable response:

“I have spent the last two days trying to figure out a way to properly address the issue you have raised on your web site. I’ve slowly concluded the best way is to just be as straightforward as possible: I was wrong. You are right.

I should not have used “retard” pejoratively. It was immature, hurtful, and thoughtless. I have no justification for my actions. I realize the books that contain those sentiments were published over 10 years ago, but that is no excuse; I was an adult when I wrote them and I knew what I was doing. I feel terrible about this and deeply embarrassed. I take full responsibility for my actions and understand why this matters so much to you. I’m truly sorry.

Feel free to re-post this message on your web site. I deserve the criticism I am receiving, and I want other people to know that I realize I was wrong. I would also like to donate $25,000 to whatever charity you feel is most critical in improving the lives of people with cognitive disabilities…I have done something bad, so help me do something good.

Again, I apologize — and not just to you and your son, but to anyone else who was hurt by this.– Chuck Klosterman”

On the Ethics Alarms Apology Scale, this is not only a #1…

“An apology motivated by the realization that one’s past conduct was unjust, unfair, and wrong, constituting an unequivocal admission of wrongdoing as well as regret, remorse and contrition, as part of a sincere effort to make amends and seek forgiveness”

…but a Super #1, as fine and exemplary an example of an ideal apology as I can imagine.

For those inclined to be cynical, one could view the apology and the generous  charitable gift as necessary livelihood insurance. As “The Ethicist,” Klosterman knows that his credibility is potentially undercut by his past writings, and that distancing himself from them and condemning them was both prudent and necessary. He must recognize that as the writer of a high-profile ethics column, he must now embrace far higher standards of personal and professional conduct and comportment than he needed to as a snarky reviewer of “Pootie Tang.” Never mind. Put that cynicism aside. “The Ethicist” needed to apologize, did so courageously, openly, generously and perfectly, and provided a shining example for us all.

Chuck Klosterman, “The Ethicist,” isn’t always right, but neither am I. Ethics is tough. He proved that he is man worthy of the title—a role model, a teacher, and and an Ethics Hero.

Well done, sir. You have my respect and admiration, and I’m sorry I doubted you.

[ Addendum: Someone is bound to bring up this post, so I may as well. In it, I state my objections to all organized efforts to ban the use of  politically incorrect words, many of them words that I would never use, including slurs. I do not support efforts to censor private or public speech by mob veto. People should enjoy the full freedom of expression, and to accept the social consequences that come with the misuse of it. My conclusion, which I stand by today:

“…Stop banning words and thoughts, ugly or otherwise. Teach people to be civil, to respect each other and to treat fellow Americans with kindness and tolerance, but let people express themselves as they choose, as long as they aren’t hurting anybody or doing any harm. Trying to control thoughts and speech by banning words, ideas, sentences, insults, poetry, jokes, opinions, stories, history, books, plays and movies is causing harm, and must not be be tolerated. Don’t tell me, or anyone else, what to think or say in private, and leave my vocabulary alone. I don’t trust the word police to stop at “retarded.” I don’t trust them to stop at all, because they are never satisfied until everyone thinks just like they do.”

Criticizing a writer or speaker on his or her public statements or published works is always fair, however.]


Pointer: T Bird

Source: A typical son

42 thoughts on “Now THAT’S An Apology: Chuck Klosterman (“The Ethicist”) Shows The Way

  1. Hello, I wrote the letter you are referring to. Your comment: “His mother occasionally comments on Ethics Alarms, using the name T Bird.” is not accurate. I have never heard of Ethics Alarm and I have no idea who T Bird is. I hope you will revise your post to reflect accuracy.

    • I’m sorry—I misunderstood the e-mail that pointed me to the post, and thought it came from the blog writer. Careless. I fixed it.

      Nothing to get huffy about, though. T Bird is nice.

      But you should have heard, or at least read about, Ethics Alarms, since one of the comments on your blog—that I think one that was responded to—links to us.

      • Not huffy. Thank you! Very kind of you to correct that. Or maybe my husband was huffy? In that case say ‘chivalrous’:0

        I will check you out! kwp

            • There seems to be a great deal of confusion. Who is taking credit for what? I alerted Jack to what appeared to be a great ethically sound apology. He mistook me for the author – simple mistake. He corrected that. I never claimed any credit for anything other than pointing him to your blog. I was just pointing out he agreed and wrote a post about it. I have never been accused of being inarticulate but obviously something went wrong here. In a way I am the catalyst for Jack’s post only because I brought it to his attention. He often has readers alert him to things they think he might want to write about. This is his blog not mine. I feel unduly accused for something I did not do.

            • Wait…WHAT? Did the demon Pazuzu just take over and possess you? T. Bird took no credit, as I explained—she just pointed me to Chuck’s apology and asked my opinion. It was my fault that I assumed she was the author of your post. How did she take credit? How are we “trolls”? What happened to that nice woman who wrote under your name in the last post? What’s the matter with you?

              • Ok, simmer down and I will too. Her comment seems as if it was innocently misleading. She posted on my blog:

                “Well have a look – this made it to another blog!” “Much regards”

                I have had a share of trolls.

                • I don’t know how that could have been fairly interpreted as taking credit for the post, or how that made the rest of the commenters here “trolls.” That was the biggest U-turn I’ve seen in a comment thread since the blog began.

                  Ironically, I think the words you are searching for are “I apologize,” not “simmer down.” Chuck would agree.

                    • Wow.

                      No, you are moving on. You may not be a typical mom, but you’re a hypocrite, and a typical jerk. I gave you a chance to do what Chuck did so well, which is to apologize to the people here–“you guys” in your elegant words–for calling them trolls with no provocation. Your gracious response is to order me to “Stop.” You’re a guest here; you don’t get to tell me what to do.

                      Good luck, and so long. Go troll yourself.

  2. Hi there!
    Thanks for linking to my wife’s post and sharing your insightful comments. I just wanted to clarify (I don’t see an email address). T bird is awesome for pointing you to this, but she is not the author of the post. (Notatypicalmom is not T Bird). There seems to be a bit of confusion at the top of this post. And yes there’s a difference between banning words (and burning books) and holding people responsible for saying reprehensible things. There is no contradiction. For some reason people seem to interpret the first amendment as a right to say whatever you want WITHOUT CONSEQUENCE. You see it a lot in the non-Klostermans defending the use of slurs.

  3. One of the few good things to result from political correctness is the change of nomenclature of this disability. People with cognitive disabilities are NOT “retarded” in any sense. At worst, they have a more difficult time learning new things than the majority of the population. They are also, as a general rule, the nicest, most polite and open people I have ever met.

  4. T. Bird here. I have been a follower of this blog for quite some time and one of the things I learned here was how to recognize an ethically sound apology. When I saw a friend post this letter from Mr. Klosterman to facebook I immediately thought it would be a shining example of an apology according to Jack’s standards and pointed him to the “a typical son” blog. Jack is honorable and quickly fixed the discrepancy in thinking that was my blog – easy mishap.

    As for the R-word my family long ago dropped it from our vernacular even though “Profoundly Retarded” is the diagnosis my Aunt was given decades ago. I know people in the mental health profession who still use it when referring to people of low IQ (70-85) or who have remarkable delays in development. There is a long way to go.

    Words are powerful and I appreciate learning and growing so that I can remove offensive, pejorative ones from my vocabulary. I recently learned how offensive the title “gypsy” was to people of Roma descent. Since this was the “Nationality” listed on my adopted niece’s official Russian birth certificate I was somewhat surprised to find it so offensive. After some thought, reading and speaking with a friend of Roma descent I now completely understand why this word is offensive. I was aware of negative stereotypes people felt about “gypsies” but I myself did not apply that stereotype to an entire group of people. Now I see how the word itself is insulting. Yes I have the freedom to say what I want; however, I also am fully responsible for the consequences of my choice of words. My relationship with my friend and my niece as well as my desire to treat all people with respect and dignity prohibits me from using that word descriptively again.

    I am happy Jack chose to highlight this letter of apology – the more press it gets, the wider audience this very important message reaches.

    • Tbird,
      “Retarded” is not a slur unless used thst way.Denotatively, it means “slowed.” Mental health pros use it because there is value in having accurate yet concise terms with which to describe the world. 


      Terms that denote mental deficiency have been subjected to the euphemism treadmill. … Some elements of society seek neutral medical terms, while others want to use such terms as weapons with which to abuse people.
      Today, new words like special or challenged are replacing the term retarded. The term developmental delay is popular among caretakers and parents of individuals with intellectual disability …

      Retarded comes from the Latin retardare, “to make slow, delay, keep back, or hinder,” so mental retardation meant the same as mentally delayed.

      if you’re really, really trying to find offense in everything — as some people are — you can also find something offensive about “special” or “challenged” or “delayed” or “disabled.” 

      Soon as society is shamed into a new euphemism, then some group will start claiming offense from that one too. You can’t win.

      “Retarded” is not an insult if you actually are; it’s just a description.  It is an insult if applied to some one normal — which was the whole point when Klosterman used those words in humor years ago.

      Too bad he couldn’t stand by what he wrote in clear humor. Probably NYT editors were breathing down his neck.

      • Mental health pro’s…that would be me, a retired psychologist who spent a substantial part of his career dealing with the developmentally disabled… do NOT use the term retarded, except when referring to police officers. Sorry, that was unnecessary and impolite. But I will leave it in as it is late and I am tired and this is a good example of things that can happen in such a circumstance. The proper term among professionals is “developmentally disabled” or, possibly, cognitively disabled. When you can show me a Ph.D. in Psychology, with several years experience working with this population, then you get to show me new definitions for retarded, not before.

      • JayLib,
        I do see the distinction of using retarded as an adjective to describe something delayed versus using it as an insult. Funny you should mention it, my 18 year old daughter was just explaining tonight how she never appreciated being labeled “gifted” as she felt it singled her out as being “special” and to her “special” had negative connotations. Kids who were “special” required intervention to have their needs met and for that she felt guilty. Why should she get anything more than anyone else?

        So yes, it could get nutty trying to never offend. Who would have thought she would be offended to be called “gifted?” But I do get her point.

  5. On more than one occasion, I’ve heard the term “socially retarded”.
    Usually coming from the mouth of an Under 25 and meant to mean lacking social graces or manners.
    In my youth we called that “uncouth”.
    I was surprised how many hits the term got on Google.

    • There is nothing wrong with “socially retarded”, which means, literally, late to develop social skills. That is exactly why I object to word-banning efforts—it makes clear expression and thought more difficult. The use of retarded in that term makes no reference to cognitively-challenged individuals at all, because the context isn’t mental ability, but social interaction. And “socially inept” is just plain different. The nest step is finding “flame retardant” to be insensitive, and if you don’t see that coming, there’s a chink in your mental armor.

  6. Whoa, whoa, whoa.
    This strikes me as bowing to silly political correctness.
    “Retarded” used to be the official descriptor for certain mental disabilities, just as “Negro” used to be the word for those of us now called “black” or “African American.” I am listening this very moment to radio station WVON — the “Voice of the Negro.” Word has it, there is also a prominent and powerful organization that claims to advance “Colored People.”
    Objectively, “retarded” and “retardation” are still accurate words.
    Those who find it offensive are reacting to the wrong enemy. They should be angry at whatever causes such disabilities, not at a writer who uses such terms clearly in contexts far removed from hate or targeting of actually disabled people.
    In context, it’s clear that Klostermans’ snarky and insensitive references were to fully functional individuals who ought to have acted more intelligent — not at actual mentally retarded people who can’t help how they act.
    Under this PC standard, when somebody refers to a mass murderer or dictator as “sick,” that means that they hate every one with a health problem?

    • I neglected to observe, WVON and NAACP could be accepted as self-rather than other-labeling. However, that gets us into the double-standard territory that I loathe. If it’s unacceptable for “outsiders” to use, it ought to be unacceptable for “insiders” to use publicly as well. The point in that, isn’t directly related to Klosterman, I’ll admit.

  7. By the way, I did a recent blog post in which I called Illinois “the most retarded State in the union” for taking up the rear in adopting concealed carry. Any one who even tries to suggest that this means I hate the mentally disabled will will receive ridicule from me and will deserve it.

    • No kidding. I’m going to post about it. Classic. The morally superior can demand contrition, but basic etiquette and acknowledgment of wrongdoing are not in their repertoire, because, you know, they are special, and don’t have to apologize like the people they attack. I’m pretty annoyed, to be honest.

  8. Wow and good grief. I think someone out there has a serious problem per this article. There are thousands of words that have been deemed unacceptable in today’s society. I say get over it, grow up, get that chip off your shoulder. My hubby has early stage dementia. His new name is Mr. Dementia….we all like it since it helps strangers understand…nah, he ain’t stupid his smart brain is burning up….like the Eagle’s song…”Get Over it”! Live life the best enjoyable way you can.

    P.S. And yes, this jerk annoyed me too! Kinda like the Steve Martin movie “The Jerk”….l guess he was just slow and not a real jerk?

    • Ah, the old chip. An old metaphor that still works pretty well–do people do that any more? Dare people to knock off a chip? Or is the new thing to go on the blog of someone who just sent you traffic on yours, call him and his readers trolls for no reason, insult the reader who flagged her post, and refuse to apologize when a terrific apology TO HER was the topic? Is that the new ritual for arrogant cyber-extortionists?

      Would Mr. Dementia get a kick out of meeting Mrs. Hypocrisy?

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