The apology – not to be confused with the rhetorical category of apologia – is simply that, not a defense of what he did. Or is it? The only discourse available to him in the world of unconvertable ideological souls is to deny, deny, deny. He does it three times: He denies being the person in the video in a very direct and literal sense: “is not the person I am.” Secondly he directly communicates his nature: “I am not racist.” Finally he does it a third time, praising the diversity immigrants bring as one of the reasons he moved to New York. Maybe it is apologia? He does take a careful, if hidden position behind civility: “While people should be able to express themselves freely, they should do so calmly and respectfully.” So maybe he believes he pays for those sandwich shop workers to be here? He believes that they should not speak Spanish at work? It’s unclear. All we know is that he has said that he is not racist. We must compare performances to determine the real soul. And under duress, the real soul is always revealed.
We lack the tools to speak about speech as going beyond ourselves. Since speech is merely a tool of expression of truth, we can follow the footprints to the truth of the soul and determine if the soul is good or corrupt. If we see someone emotionally out of control, we believe, for some reason that this is when the real person comes out.
We do not consider the fact that we are all subjects of the power of speech. We have no language for the role speech plays in interpretation and knowledge. All Schlossberg can say is that he is not racist. Yet his speech was clearly xenophobic and racist. If Schlossberg is right, who was speaking? Was it anger? Frustration? Something else? Was speech speaking Aaron Schlossberg? Did he become a conduit for a tectonic, ancient discourse about race, identity, status, nation-state violence, etc.? These are not excuses for him, but inroads for us to try to understand how our beliefs and how ideology is spoken through us by powers well beyond us that, with every utterance, constitute us.
Kenneth Burke discusses the difference between the comic and tragic frames as the difference between death and understanding. The comic frame allows us to separate soul from speech so we can identify with the subject speaking as mistaken. This assumption of universal humility is missing from our national discourse. Imagine if Schlossberg said, “I was simply mistaken” – This defense is impossible. Instead he says the video captured a stranger, someone who is not him. It’s tragic. He is the opposite of this doppleganger who hurt people. He is not the person who hurt, but he apologizes for it. It’s tragic frame all over, and he has to die. If not professionally or attitudinally, perhaps biologically, as the white powder sent to his office attests. The comic frame offers a chance for self-inventory of our own relationship to ideology, which is much more difficult than simply scapegoating the evildoer. Another more difficult comic framing is to take responsibility for a city and a world that allows for someone to speak this way, or to be spoken by such an ideology. The power of speech to rend people’s reality is always an utterance away.
The other path is the Buddhist sense of language – necessary yet fundamentally lacking. We have to speak, and speech fails. Sometimes though speech is necessary although terrible. Where does Schlossberg’s anger come from? We cannot accept, from the Buddhist perspective, that the sandwich makers made him angry. Anger comes from within, not from the outside. We blame the outside, but we are the ones who cook up anger. From this attitude we can generate a feeling of sympathy for such a sad and angry man. What sort of empty, horrible life does Schlossberg have that would allow him to speak, or for speech to use him, in this way? What lonliness and sadness makes him feel people making sandwiches are worthy of such derision? It is incomprehensible in its dark implications.
What Schlossberg did was horrible, no question. But the poverty we have in being able to talk about the role speech has in creating and constituting pain, suffering, horrors, hate, and a whole lot more we normally term “reality” is even more horrifying. If we see speech as only a way to glimpse the quality of a soul, we have no way to account for the operation of speech on our identities and beliefs in severe ways. Democracy cannot function if speech is merely a thumbprint of a being that cannot be altered, cannot be changed, cannot be reasoned with – all that’s left for us to do is elimination, symbolic or otherwise. We must believe that speech is not an indicator of one’s ontic state, but of one’s particular constitution in that moment – and address that person before us in a way that they can, and will, change. This is the root of persuasion, and Schlossberg’s horrible beliefs are not a part of his DNA. He was convinced of them somehow, and it is up to us to interrogate and figure out how belief can be altered. This expression hurt more than immigrants; the whole situation and response should give us pause in our assumption that we live in a democracy where people believe that others, and themselves, can or even need to be persuaded.