Carlos Lozada is Outlook editor of The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter: @CarlosLozadaWP
Public apologies are like currencies: The more they’re issued, the less they’re worth.
Nearly every day, another famous offender expresses the deepest of regret for doing — or usually saying — something awful. It could be Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel apologizing after misogynistic e-mails he sent his Stanford University fraternity brothers back in 2009 and 2010 came to light. (“They in no way reflect who I am today or my views towards women.”) Or actor Jonah Hill, after he used a homophobic slur against a paparazzo. (“I genuinely am deeply sorry to anyone who’s ever been affected by that term in their life.”) Or singer Pharrell, unhappy after getting slammed for appearing on a magazine cover in a Native American headdress. (“I respect and honor every kind of race, background and culture. I am genuinely sorry.”) Or, of course, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling finally apologizing, in a way, for the deep prejudice revealed in a taped conversation. (“I’m not a racist. I made a terrible, terrible mistake. And I’m here with you today to apologize and to ask for forgiveness for all the people that I’ve hurt.”)
And that’s just in the past few weeks.
Sure, there’s some perverse pleasure in watching public figures grapple with their transgressions. But high-profile apologies tend to feel so forced and scripted, so much less believable than the original offenses, that it’s hard to see the point of them — let alone distinguish sincerity from PR. In “Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology,” linguist Edwin L. Battistella dissects dozens of mea culpas by politicians, celebrities and assorted pan-flashers, examining the language and context that make public apologies succeed or fail.
Battistella, who teaches writing at Southern Oregon University, is reluctant to outline an ideal apology. “Each situation is unique,” he cautions, and “different transgressions call for different apologies,” but he points to some key elements. For instance, apologizers must name their offense to show that they understand it. They also need to disavow their bad behavior and make their apology unambiguously clear, whether verbally or in writing. And because “it is the recipient of an apology who determines its success,” the response to an apology — whether acceptance, rejection or further discussion — matters as well.
These seem like reasonable standards, but very few big-name apologies meet them.
Consider Joseph Hazelwood, captain of the Exxon Valdez, which spilled more than 10 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989. Hazelwood — who was in his quarters during the accident and who had a suspended driver’s license at the time for driving under the influence — was indicted on three felony counts, convicted of a misdemeanor, fined $50,000 and sentenced to community service.
Two decades later, he apologized. Sort of. “I was the captain of a ship that ran aground and caused a horrendous amount of damage,” he recounted in an interview. “I’ve got to be responsible for that. I would like to offer an apology, a very heartfelt apology, to the people of Alaska for the damage caused by the grounding of a ship that I was in command of.” Battistella calls this a “morally fragmented apology,” in that Hazelwood was accepting responsibility because of his position, not embracing blame for his actions.
This parsing is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s apology during the Iran-contra scandal. “As angry as I may be about activities undertaken without my knowledge, I am still accountable for those activities,” Reagan said to the nation in March 1987. “As disappointed as I may be in some who served me, I’m still the one who must answer to the American people for this behavior.” It’s an I’m-sorry-my-subordinates-are-so-terrible apology.
Hillary Rodham Clinton makes an appearance in “Sorry About That,” as required in any nonfiction book published between now and November 2016. Following the failure of the Clinton administration’s health-care-reform initiative, in which the first lady played a leading role, Clinton made an unusual apology. “I regret very much that the efforts on health care were badly misunderstood, taken out of context and used politically against the administration,” she said at a lunch with journalists in early 1995. “I take responsibility for that, and I’m very sorry.”
But what was she apologizing for, exactly? Clinton regretted the actions of other people who misinterpreted or misrepresented health-care reform. Her apology suggests “regret for a situation, not regret for an offense,” Battistella contends. And the situation she regretted was that she had such devious political enemies and had not been savvy enough to counter them. (A far cry from her more recent “Hard Choices” reflection on her 2002 Iraq war vote: “I still got it wrong. Plain and simple.”)
Apologizers often narrow the scope of their offense and then apologize for that one, thin slice. Jimmy Carter received copious criticism for his 2006 book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” which argued that Israeli policies deprived Palestinians of basic human rights, similar to apartheid-era South Africa. He stood by the book but ultimately apologized — for one sentence, in which he had suggested that suicide bombings were a legitimate way to compel Israel to change course. “The sentence was worded in a completely improper and stupid way,” he said in a question-and-answer session with students at Brandeis University. “I have written my publisher to change that sentence immediately. I apologize to you personally, to everyone here.”
This apology didn’t appease many people, and Carter apologized again in 2009 in an open letter to the Jewish community. He asserted that “we must not permit criticisms for improvement to stigmatize Israel” and asked for forgiveness “for any words or deeds of mine that may have done so.” As Battistella puts it, “Carter’s apologies show him wanting to have it both ways: he wanted to be forgiven but also remain as consistent with his earlier views as possible.”
The author dwells on Bob Packwood, the former senator from Oregon, and the revelation of his stunning 38-woman sexual harassment pileup in the early 1990s. “If an apology comes as part of a self-serving defense, it will be ineffective,” Battistella writes, and that was certainly the case with Packwood. He offered conditional apologies (“If any of my comments or actions have indeed been unwelcome . . . for that I am sincerely sorry”) and quibbled with the definition of sexual harassment. He also highlighted his track record in support of women’s rights, as though his policy positions somehow compensated for his actions. “I recognize now that my personal conduct has been at variance with these beliefs — not because my convictions are not genuine, but because my conduct was not faithful to those convictions,” he said in a statement shortly after the story broke.
The way Packwood distinguishes beliefs from actions gets at one of the most intriguing arguments in “Sorry About That.” Battistella cites sociologist Erving Goffman, who maintained that an apology requires “a splitting of the self into a blameworthy part and a part that stands back and sympathizes with the blame giving, and, by implication, is worthy of being brought back into the fold.”
If genuine, this splitting makes sense. Once you grasp that what you’ve done requires an apology, you need to show that you’ve learned and grown, that you’ve become worthy of forgiveness. For example, in 2005 the Senate passed a resolution apologizing to victims of lynching for the Senate’s failure in years past to pass anti-lynching legislation — essentially apologizing for the inaction of its former self.
At times, though, splitting may become a way of reducing the significance of the offense. After the world learned of the horrific treatment of Iraqi detainees by U.S. military personnel at Abu Ghraib, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld offered his “deepest apology” to the Iraqis who were mistreated, and he accepted “full responsibility” — but then sought to separate the act from the nation. Rumsfeld said the abuses were perpetrated “by a small number of U.S. military,” and he emphasized that they were “inconsistent with the values of our nation . . . and fundamentally un-American.” In other words: Yes, we’re the ones who did that. But no, that’s not who we are.
The conundrum for the offended: How much difference is there, really, between the offender and the subsequent apologizer? Is Snapchat’s 23-year-old chief executive truly a different person from the frat boy who sent e-mails about “sororisluts” and “fat girls” a few years ago? Do you believe the Clippers’ Sterling when he says that he’s not as racist as he sounds on tape and that he was “baited” into making those comments? And though Jonah Hill seems sincere about his positive feelings for the LGBT community, there’s something just slightly incomplete about an apology for the anti-gay slur at the end of a sentence but not for the “suck my d---” preceding it. Hill is apologizing to all those offended by his choice of insult, just not to the one individual targeted by the insult.
The proliferation of public apologies may prove self-defeating, because serial apologizers lose credibility. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple has argued that MSNBC’s frequent apologies — for Martin Bashir’s comments about Sarah Palin, for a tweet suggesting that a TV ad featuring a biracial family would upset conservatives, and others — have become “an enabling device for the network’s tendentious and divisive attitudes.”
Of course, never apologizing is hardly better. Public apologies feel so defensive because they’re regarded as a sign of weakness, especially in American politics. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed criticizing President Obama’s policies toward Iraq, former vice president Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz Cheney chastised Obama for supposedly “apologizing for our great nation.” Battistella notes that Dick Cheney himself is typically reluctant to express regrets, whether for dropping an f-bomb on the Senate floor or shooting a hunting partner in the face. “Some individuals simply find it difficult to apologize,” Battistella writes. “Cheney seems to be one of them.” No surprise, Cheney’s attack on Obama’s foreign policy comes without an acknowledgment — let alone an apology — for his own role in Iraq’s turmoil.
If this book shows anything, it is that a full and genuine public apology, born of self-reflection, reveals courage more than weakness. It’s hard — but worth it. “The most successful apologies,” Battistella concludes, “effect a reconciliation in which the offended and offender reaffirm common values and mutual worth.”
No need to apologize for that.
SORRY ABOUT THAT
The Language of Public Apology
Edwin L. Battistella
Oxford. 217 pp. $24.95