Republican Rep.-elect Dan Crenshaw got SNL’s resident bad boy, Pete Davidson, to admit that not all jokes — especially ones about getting hit by an IED in “war or whatever” — are funny. In the meantime, Monica Lewinsky has never received a sincere mea culpa from Bill Clinton in the #MeToo era; a senator from Mississippi is refusing to apologize for an abhorrent comment about “public hanging”; and the greatest athlete of all time, Serena Williams, is still waiting on that ref to show her some respect.
Who gets an apology and who doesn’t may say more about society than the “sorry” itself. Veterans with battle wounds. Yes. Apologize! Black Mississippians reminded of their state’s history of lynchings. Not so much. A former intern hung out to dry for an affair with a U.S. president. Eh. She should probably just get over it already.
The running theme here is that the powerful in any given formula offer amends only to those they deem worthy. Successful men apologize to other successful men. Southern white women don’t have to make amends to the African American victims of their state’s atrocities. Presidents don’t atone for their sins — ever, but especially when a lowly staffer is involved. The power dynamic here is key.
That brings us back to Crenshaw (R-Tex.) and Davidson — the most recent and succinct example of the apology dynamic playing out along scripted lines. Davidson is a big-time famous person (maybe you remember his ex-fiancee Ariana Grande) who picked on a lesser-known person in a bad joke about his disability. But while Crenshaw himself may not have been especially powerful, he is part of a powerful group: Just about everybody was offended for him because he is straight out of central casting for an American hero (though the congressman made it a point to say he wasn’t offended). So there was no questioning that Crenshaw was worthy of an apology. It was a matter of when, not if. And it came in a big way, live on Saturday night.
“People make mistakes,” Crenshaw told me via email. “Public apologies can be effective, but only if there are recipients willing to forgive. We should all want to forgive each other a little more often.”
But what if only certain people even get the opportunity to forgive? Lewinsky isn’t holding her breath when it comes to Bill Clinton, although as she writes in Vanity Fair: “He would be a better man for it ... and we, in turn, a better society.”
Here’s the thing, explains political scientist Graham Dodds, who has researched political apologies from 1077 — when Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV begged Pope Gregory VII for forgiveness — to now: “People don’t like to apologize. You do it because you have to.” Public figures are especially reluctant to admit wrongdoing unless pressed.
Apologies are about push and pull, give and take. The offended, though initially victimized in some way, regains a modicum of power when demanding an apology by flipping the script. On the other side of the coin, by admitting wrongdoing, the offender loses some power. And the last thing any powerful person wants is to give up the good stuff, especially to anyone deemed “less than” — like, say, minorities, women, etc.
Jennifer Thomas, co-author of “When Sorry Isn’t Enough,” says that all humans have an innate need for justice, a gnawing desire that a wrong should never go unnoticed. Apologies help scratch that itch. But most people find it easier to receive an apology than to give one, including the current occupant of the White House, who has advised his staff, “Don’t ever apologize.” Although President Trump claims to have some regrets, they’re about his “tone,” not his actions (cheating on his third wife; using an epithet to describe Haiti, El Salvador and African countries; calling Mexicans “rapists”).
“I’ve never seen anyone quite like him,” says Thomas of Trump, “who has the combination of being offensive and not contrite.” The one bright spot, says Thomas, is that we have some room to improve. “Apologies,” she notes, “are a growth industry.”
Helena Andrews-Dyer is co-author of The Post’s Reliable Source column.