Monday, October 25, 2010

Beware Spectres Bearing Olive Branches

Today's news resurrects a two decade-old sore, and NPR's Nina Totenberg called this incident "stranger than fiction."

Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, confirmed that yes she did leave a message on Anita Hill's answering machine. In that message she asked Ms. Hill to consider offering an apology and full explanation for her testimony during Justice Thomas' confirmation hearings in 1991. In a subsequent statement to CNN, Ms. Thomas purported that her message was intended to offer an olive branch, and no offense was intended.

Ms. Hill has reported that no apology will be offered any time soon.

Read this CNN article for the backstory and current update.

When you offer an "olive branch," the implication is that you want to make peace. If you want to make peace, there's been some conflict that you wish to resolve or at least mitigate. We can call that process "de-escalation."
Now there are several general principles of de-escalation. One is that you do not insist that the other person is wrong. That would not serve to mitigate conflict, would it? In fact, it usually pisses the other party off. So much for striving for peace.
So when Ms. Thomas then asked for an apology, she was not really offering an olive branch. Granted, and I'm going out on a limb here, it looks like Ms. Thomas believes that an injustice was done. Maybe she is looking for redress. Frankly, history may remember Justice Thomas more for Anita Hill's testimony than for any scholarly and enlightened opinions he's written from the bench, and maybe she's feeling aggrieved about it. Maybe she's fishing for political points (Ms. Thomas is the founder of Liberty Central, a conservative nonprofit lobbying group linked with the tea party).
Whatever her reasoning, she should at least honestly name what she's doing as confrontation. (In my 5 week self-defense course we go over these, and other verbal skills, in lesson 4.) Even though it's almost Halloween, this is not the time (and it is NEVER the time) to disguise a a wolf in an olive branch's clothing.

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