When I was about seventeen I was rapping. This is not what the apology is for, and it’s not where it ends, but I called a girl a bitch.
This was not exactly a cardinal sin at seventeen. It’s the sort of tasteless thing that happens all the time in real life, but is scrubbed hypocritically from the internet where people cultivate their best selves.
But I did.
I remember exactly how it felt clumsy and insincere from my mouth. I was trying to impress some friends, trying to force a rhyme, trying to fit personal angst and stress into a cooler outlet and it didn’t work. Also, in my defense, it was a freestyle. I was on the spot and had to rhyme with “switch,” as I remember; an aside of calling her a bitch fit lyrically, and I didn’t have the second or skill to change from it.
I didn’t crash and burn. Nobody noticed or cared, cringed or wrote a think-piece. We were seventeen, in a pre-Twitter world, and the misstep was private. But it was the experience of trying to provoke, of wearing something else, that stuck with me. It was a personal, private stumble, awkward and personal, and it was captured, contextless, on camera.
Nothing happened with it. I doubt anything ever will. Even if I ran for President on a “don’t call a woman a bitch” platform, I don’t think anyone would take my lanky, long-hair and thin-glasses attempt at profanity as a form of malice. I watched the video after it was taken, and I even saw my own eyes, the hesitation and gulp before I said it. I was anxious even in the moment, regretful as I said it; even a sliver of context would reveal a kid outpaced, trying to be someone he wasn’t.
I have a lot of similar, small regrets. As a writer or performer, I’ve often worked a clumsy line between what I thought was provocative and what was lazy, bland, and offensive. I knew controversy worked, and early stand-up jokes were crass repeats of the boring and superficially offensive. I regret them, and do my best to bite my tongue when I see others in the same process. Because that’s not who I am and it wasn’t even who I was; it was a younger self, trying and stumbling and learning through missteps. Maybe that’s true for them, too.
There’s an inevitability of an intellectual and moral puberty. Just as the teenage years produce lanky, uneven changes of the body, growing up produces similar uneven advancements of the mind and spirit. You stumble. It’s inevitable, if unfortunate, and it unnerves me that the public space of the internet prides itself on rigorous shaming of those in that process.
Don’t get me wrong. You aren’t meant to suffer ignorance or fools with grace or a “live and let live” false moral equivalency. But it’s hypocritical to feast upon the semi-public missteps of others. If a politician tweets something offensive, that’s meant to be fact, clear and public. But the line blurs. What if a nineteen year old tweets some nasty joke to her two-hundred and six followers? Are you obliged to fight them? How nasty is the joke? How nasty the teen? Where do the lines come and go?
I do regret a lot of small, stupid things I said or wrote to try to get attention. Most were misguided attempts at self-discovery through performance.
From the above, the process went: Am I the type of guy who can call her a bitch? Is that funny or cool? No? Okay, wow, that’s embarrassing. Geez, I hope she doesn’t hear this. Am I a bully? This isn’t me. I will remember and adapt to this forever.
It’s something I learned through early stand-up, through early writing, through the first thing I wrote at thirteen, riddled with the excitement of swears, and the shame I felt when my Dad found my lazy experimentation. It’s regret, sincere and awkward, and something I’m desperate to leave behind even as we move into an age where mistakes are calcified into permanence. Like it or not, fucking up is how people learn. We tolerate it reluctantly. But I feel weird and stressed for a generation of future learners — performers, artists, teens floundering to find themselves — who will be marked for their fuck-ups in a way that I wasn’t.
We learn and we grow through our errors, and regret is a naturally fermented tool over time, separate even from shame and aggression. After all, nobody demanded this apology. Nobody knew! But I still feel bad, still remember it, still let that small experience shape me, as I will the next time I fuck up.
This isn’t asking for a free pass, or advocating for a universal live-and-let-live through errors, but it is a point worth making. People learn, people fuck up, and people regret, independent from consequence or public shame.