When comedian Louis C.K. issued a public statement on Friday responding to accounts first confirmed in the New York Times of his past sexual offenses against women, Americans reacted with a mix of cautious approval, criticism and exasperation.
Understandably, people don’t take well to public figures confessing their sins only after discovery threatens their careers. But when our profound cultural and political fissures are tearing at the fabric of national community, public apology still has the potential to matter — allowing us to accept and state new public norms, and clarify shared social expectations for behavior.
Apology and its companions (trauma, remorse, redemption, atonement, reconciliation) have been studied across many disciplines. These observations come from my research on community-based racial healing efforts and a course I teach on apology, which draws from memoir, history and social science research.
What is “apology?”
Apology is never merely private. The late sociologist Nicholas Tavuchis noted that while norms around the act of apology vary across cultures, it is central to our existence as social animals. Apology acknowledges the violation of a shared moral code and seeks to repair that violation by expressing remorse. An adequate apology requires, at minimum: recognition of the wrong committed, which implicitly acknowledges the violated rule; admission of fault and responsibility; and expression of genuine regret and remorse for harm done. Penitents may also offer to make restitution or reparations.
Authentic apology carries what Tavuchis called “talismanic and paradoxical qualities.” Although an “I’m sorry” statement, no matter how sincere, cannot alter the past — it cannot change what happened, or the damage done — it nonetheless has immense social value. That’s because, if accepted, apology — or at least full confession — allows the parties to move forward. Apology is an essential mechanism for reinforcing social values, for mediating membership in a community and, at least potentially, for providing a path toward healing.
Apology, American style
Americans notoriously love (and love to hate) public apologies. Although individual and collective apologies abound in U.S. history, the nation itself has issued very few formal apologies.
Susan Wise Bauer has documented that today’s formalized ritual of public confession and apology grows from a form created by 19th–century American evangelicals. Today, the tearful public prostration that may seem second nature to an evangelical pastor or disgraced politician for committing adultery, homosexual acts or embezzlement may strike others as overwrought. But in American public discourse, moral violations require explicit accounts of trespass and displays of remorse from those who hope to get back in the public’s good graces.
Must they be sincere? Bishop Desmond Tutu noted that in the South African Truth and Reconciliation process expressions of remorse were not required from amnesty applicants because it was a “no win situation”: If they were too effusive they could be perceived as insincere, but if they were merely formal they could be seen as callous.
But among Americans, part of the ritual involves diagnosing the inadequacies of the public apologies of the day and arguing about whether the penitent has shown true remorse. In the mid-aughts we saw a spate of examples: former South Carolina governor (and current South Carolina congressman) Mark Sanford’s mea culpa was an incoherent tangle of romantic rationalizations and family values refrains. Eliot Spitzer or John Edwards may have spoken the right words in accounting for their infidelities, but they angered the public by humiliating their wives. Anthony Weiner’s apologies were repeatedly belied by his ongoing recidivism.
Unofficial public trials do not produce consistent or fair results. After the ritual of exposure, admission and public dissection, the public treats some figures — say, Bill Clinton or Clarence Thomas — as rehabilitated, while others — say, Monica Lewinsky or Anita Hill — remain tarnished for life. In the 1990s (not unlike the 1690s), suspicion of sexual assault accusers seemed to mean the women are banished semi-permanently from public esteem, while men’s careers proceed apace. Some suggest it may be time for a reckoning.
In other words, public forgiveness is often entangled with the social biases of a given period. But dialogue about public apology can also be a way to confirm that expectations have shifted and old patterns are no longer acceptable.
The value of the flawed apology
Louis C.K.’s chastening comes at an extraordinary moment in which sexual harassment victims are speaking out en masse, making credible accusations against dozens of powerful men, and gaining unprecedented cultural and political attention. Collectively, their accounts reveal systemic sexual violence and gender discrimination throughout American workplaces and society.
C.K., meanwhile, has had a reputation as a male feminist comedian. His work has focused on his own self-debasement and feelings of inadequacy, acknowledging that women face danger when dealing with men; he has publicly and financially endorsed female writers and comedians. For many who believed this reputation, his misdeeds feel like especially painful betrayals at the social level.
These same factors give his apology potential power as a counterpoint to Weinstein’s, O’Reilly’s, Moore’s, and many others’ refusals to acknowledge wrongdoing. C.K.’s fans wanted his admissions to be serious and specific. Many are disappointed, pronouncing his statement too self-centered, a non-apology, or inadequately attuned to the dynamics of what some feminists refer to as “rape culture.”
Nevertheless, some features of his statement may make a difference in Americans’ ongoing public confrontation with pervasive sexual harassment.
Here’s what’s important in an apology
C.K. addresses his victims directly; confirms the truth of the accusations without arguing; attempts to express understanding (however belated) of how he abused his influence; and accepts the losses he’s incurred, including canceling his creative projects, in order to “step back and take a long time to listen.” He doesn’t deny responsibility by pleading mitigating circumstances like sex addiction or by questioning his accusers’ motives.
These features begin to model what it can look like to take responsibility for sexual misbehavior and the power abuses on which it invariably rests. The public has actually seen very few instances of this. Sexual assault survivors almost never hear powerful men publicly affirm their accusers’ accounts. If an individual does attempt to own his individual sins and validate a growing public consensus, however incompletely, maligning the effort may signal to others that it’s not worth it to publicly take responsibility and express remorse.
The point here is not to defend C.K. as the victim of anything. Time will tell if he will eventually recover his status in American culture. But recognizing the better elements within his imperfect apology enables the public to assert social expectations for recognized abusers, and to reinforce that the tide is turning on brushing aside the sexual abuses of powerful people.
Meanwhile, critiques of the apology are essential parts of the ritual, as observers try to state new public norms for behavior and attitudes going forward.
As messy as they can be, public apologies are an important part of our political process when they help us advance an important discussion about our social values.
Correction: An earlier version of this post gave the wrong state for Rep. Mark Sanford. We regret the error.
Nancy D. Wadsworth is associate professor of political science at the University of Denver and author of “Ambivalent Miracles: Evangelicals and the Politics of Racial Healing.”