On the Nature of Gaffes

Gaffe, n. an unintentional act or remark causing embarrassment to its originator; a blunder (Google)

For the past 24 hours, members of the Emory community and academics on Twitter have been lighting up social media with outrage and critical conversations about remarks made by Emory University’s president in a column called “As American as … Compromise.” Writing about the cuts to Emory’s academic programs last fall, President James Wagner invokes the 3/5ths compromise as a decision necessary to “form a more perfect union.” Analogously, it seems, the Emory cuts were an imperfect compromise made to form a more perfect university.

My colleague Tressie McMillan Cottom has provided thoroughgoing analysis of the problematic assumptions in Wagner’s essay. A number of other responses are worth a read as well. In particular, I recommend Aaron Bady’s post at The New Inquiry and Chris Taylor’s blog post. These responses point to important operations of hegemony, privilege, and racism implicit in Wagner’s assertions, critiques with which I strongly agree.

While I have been troubled by the fact that James Wagner will soon be conferring a PhD in African American and postcolonial literature on me, I have been struck by how illustrative Wagner’s remarks are of both political and racist discourse in the United States. As soon as I read the column, I remarked to a friend that the poorly chosen compromise would soon be represented by the Emory PR machine as a “gaffe,” that form of apparently unintentional error known to the likes of Todd Akin of “legitimate rape” fame. Yet, I was surprised to find the term “gaffe” thrown around casually on social media as a descriptor for Wagner’s words, and I was dismayed to learn that the webpage for Emory’s Student Re-Visioning Committee, the movement against Emory’s cuts, had repeatedly invoked “gaffe” as a description of the situation.

In political discourse, gaffes are common forms of utterance. They are such an integral part of politics that Dan Amira has compiled “A Taxonomy of Gaffes,” identifying the various types that exist. Journalist Michael Kinsley has described a “gaffe” as the moment “when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” Indeed, a gaffe may also be an expression of subconscious belief, the less obvious truths that are meant to remain unutterable.

Unsurprisingly, Wagner’s response to the backlash against his column is partly expressed in the language of the gaffe: “To those hurt or confused by my clumsiness and insensitivity, please forgive me.” Implicitly, Wagner’s invocation of “those hurt or confused” and of his “clumsiness” (that is, his gaffe) shifts responsibility for racist discourse away from his position as writer. In doing so, Wagner tries to distance himself from the racist implications of his remarks. Therefore, as his audience, we are put in the curious position of encountering racist discourse without racists, to riff on Eduardo Bonilla-Silva‘s work.

To invoke a narrative of gaffe by way of “clumsiness” is to claim ultimate deniability and to abdicate responsibility for one’s words. Gaffes provide exemptions from accountability, foisting the burden of interpretation onto the audience (“those hurt or confused”), asking the audience to divine the intentions behind words rather than accept what was actually written. When gaffes repudiate the writer’s burden of meaning, the audience becomes object of the interpretative hail of intention. The gaffe reshapes problematic language into a more palatable narrative of error, charging an audience with manipulating its own frames of reference to accommodate that error. Yet, those of us who are in subordinate positions in relationship to dominant culture are forced to perform such accommodations on a daily basis, whether because of race, gender, sexuality, class, or a range of other intersecting identity categories. Wagner’s recourse to “clumsiness,” therefore, takes the shape of micro-aggression, exemplifying the repudiated responsiblity of casual racism and complementing the historical erasures that subtend his column, from the transatlantic slave trade to global capitalism to European and American imperialism. What could be more silencing and effacing for members of a university community than being forced to perform rhetorical gymnastics for the president of their university?

The implications of Wagner’s column and response are sobering. Since the program cuts last fall, the Emory community has been struggling to understand the administration’s position on university governance. With so much power resting with the administration, it is disheartening to see the university’s president writing with such lack of awareness about racial privilege. Such privilege, it seems, also must permeate Emory Magazine and the university’s PR machine, both of which enabled Wagner’s column and response to see print.

Thanks to Emory’s entwinement with slavery and racism, from the university’s statement of “regret” for its historical involvement in slavery to remarks made by students on the Dooley Show last semester to the now-defunct Dental School’s anti-Semitism, members of the Emory community have been beset with a number of “teachable moments” in the past few years. As a scholar of race and ethnicity and a woman of color, I find myself resistant to the notion of the “teachable moment,” to the idea that those of us in relatively subordinate positions are in charge of dealing with expressions of others’ prejudices and privileges, of enlightening them about their racist discourse. Yet, I will begin Monday’s meeting of my Global Blackness course not with an introduction to Amitav Ghosh’s novel Sea of Poppies as I planned but with room for conversation about Wagner’s column. Having examined my conscience (and my email inbox), I know it’s the contribution I can make to the Emory community. I can only hope that President Wagner is busy examining his own.

Thank you to my interlocutors on Twitter. Without your conversation and encouragement, I wouldn’t have written this post.


  1. Claire says

    You’re absolutely right. In general, I tend to be too forgiving of communication failures of all kinds–in part because I’m not the best communicator myself, and in part because too many administrator types put more energy into appeasing everyone linguistically (look how many synonyms for ‘heinous’ I can find! look how many times I said ‘community’!) than into institutional reform. The unconscious doesn’t gaffe except inasmuch as it puts the inside on the outside; the unconscious logic of an institution where employees of colour are often treated as disposable is much the same.

    I’m less interested in what we call the “gaffe” than in how we can direct it toward serious discussions. That said, clumsy communicator that I am, I’m more than happy to change the SRC page language to something more adequate.

    • Roopika Risam says

      Claire, I’m not worried so much about how you employ “gaffe” or exigencies of communication out of the SRC. One way to look at Wagner’s essay, though, is to say that it was merely failed communication and leave it at that, redirecting energy towards institutional reform. While his column certainly is a failure of communication, I don’t think it’s the kind of failure he now thinks it is. It’s not that he’s beleaguered because we didn’t read his metaphor (?) correctly. It’s that he has quite clearly communicated his own positionality and his limited ability to see past that – and that’s the sticking point where communication and institutional reform come to loggerheads.


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