We often talk about character assassination in politics, but of course character attacks abound in other social realms as well. Sports, entertainment, academia, science, and every domain of human social life features character attacks as people compete for advantages. In the competitive arena of sports, it’s unsurprising that opponents would harbor aggressive feelings against their competitors and that those feelings may be expressed in character attacks.
In the United States, athletes are often held to high standards for behavior and conduct because they are seen as role models, mostly for children. So, when their behavior falls short, the media and social media commentators often seize on mistakes that may linger in the form of Tweets or news stories.
Athletes have a great deal on the line. When their characters are seen to be flawed, they may lose endorsement deals or be dropped from teams. For instance, Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte lost support from sponsors Speedo and Ralph Lauren, among others, when his story about being robbed at gun point at the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro turned out to be greatly exaggerated.
So, when the media zooms in on a mistake and draws it into a larger story about a flawed character, athletes have incentive to apologize and fix the issue. These situations can help scholars of character assassination understand the dynamics of defense and apology.
Rhetorical critics term this genre of address apologia, or apology. In a famous 1973 essay entitled, “They Spoke in Defense of Themselves,” rhetoricians B. L. Ware and Wil A. Linkugel identified four factors in the discourse of apology: denial, bolstering, differentiation, and transcendence. To briefly explain each, when using denial, a speaker denies certain facts, circumstances, and often, an intent to cause harm. In bolstering, a speaker attempts to identify their character with something viewed favorably by the audience. In differentiation, the speaker attempts to divide themselves from problematic contextual factors or split something in two as a form of explanation, and in transcendence, a speaker attempts to join their character to some larger context or ideal which typically shifts audience attention away from the specifics at hand.
Take, for example, Tiger Woods’s apology after an altercation with his wife and public disclosure of extra-marital affairs. At a 2010 press conference, he addressed the controversy. In a speech that was nothing if not wooden, he nonetheless engaged in an apology that was decently well-received by the public. While certainly many of the factors of apologia are present, bolstering and differentiation are the two most prominent.
As he attempts to bolster, Woods identifies himself with the values of humility and accountability. In the very beginning of the speech, for instance, Wood says this, “I want to say to each of you, simply, and directly, I am deeply sorry for my irresponsible and selfish behavior I engaged in.”
Likewise, he directly says that he is sorry and alone accountable for his actions. This is clear when he states:
“The issue involved here was my repeated irresponsible behavior. I was unfaithful. I had affairs. I cheated. What I did is not acceptable. And I am the only person to blame. I stopped living by the core values that I was taught to believe in.”
This strategy highlights his strong moral compass and character despite his transgressions. Woods also uses differentiation as a way to demonstrate how he could have gone so far astray despite his strong character. He differentiates his true values, which he has identified above, from the context of fame and fortune. He notes:
“I knew my actions were wrong. But I convinced myself that normal rules didn’t apply. I never thought about who I was hurting. Instead, I thought only about myself. I ran straight through the boundaries that a married couple should live by. I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn’t have far — didn’t have to go far to find them.”
Thus, it becomes the experience of having money and fame that set the scene for his downfall, rather than some intrinsic character flaw.
Certainly, there is far more to say about Woods’s apologia than the incredibly brief analysis I’ve presented here, and rhetorical scholars have taken up that challenge. My point is not to suggest that this is the perfect example of apologia, but to note how rhetorical scholarship can identify possible strategies that make public defense from character attack possible and persuasive. Indeed, the media reaction to Woods’s apology was largely kind, indicating that he chose his strategies well.