A couple of weeks ago I titled a blog post Sorry, Not Sorry and the statistics for readership shot up. I am not sure it was the title that caused the spike or my fetching photographs or pithy comments, but I will hazard a guess that at least a few readers were snagged by the title. Like me, these readers might have a fascination or at least an interest in apologies, apologies given and apologies hoped for.
There are several apologies that I nearly stalk in social media and the news. There are the huge ones like, “Oops, we messed up in the Inquisition. Sorry.” Another really big one, “We got that whole slavery thing wrong. Our bad. Why can’t we put it behind us? After all, neither of us were alive when slavery was practiced.” Another variety that I particularly like involves central casting. In these scenes there is usually a tearful spouse and sometimes some somber young adult offspring in the vicinity, when a politician says, “I caused my family harm when I used a campaign credit card to pay a sex worker for a blow job during the Evangelical Call to Political Action Conference. We all make credit card errors, don’t we?” While many of my peers are yelling at their TVs during a football game (now that’s a topic for future consideration), I am watching instant replays of non-apologies masquerading as apologies.
If we can look at these examples and hear an apology at all, I think we can do so only because we are so desperate to hear one that we bend reality to fit our needs. For example, if we interpret the proclamations of the last couple of pontiffs about the role of the Catholic Church in the persecution of Jews around the world as apologies, I believe we either need a refresher in what the word means or acknowledge we are applying a less frequently used definition of the term. For most of us, apology means an acknowledgment of an offense or a failure with regret. The less used meaning would be an argument used to justify something, as in justifying a religious doctrine when an apologist defends the pope’s infallibility.
When Pope Benedict XVI expressed sorrow over his church’s neglect in the Holocaust and perpetration of the Inquisition it was between his act of welcoming a Holocaust-denying bishop into his inner circles and his advancing the steps to sainthood for Pius XII, a tacit participant in Nazi successes. It thus remains unclear for what precisely Benedict was sorry. Sorry about the bad rep? The ongoing kerfuffle? A decade ago a gifted colleague of mine argued that the catholic church learned how to persecute others by being persecuted. The techniques of the Inquisition, she said, were the techniques of the Colosseum. Even after an extensive, relatively calm debate, she could not acknowledge that she was being an apologist of the church policy of torture and anti-Semitism instead of apologizing for it.
Apologies for the US enslavement of Black people are generally not better. Sometimes when we neglect to articulate the purpose of our involvement in wrong-doing, we are shrinking from the required regret of an apology. (In a later post I plan to explore how this neglect also harms those making the purported apology.) The daily silence regarding racism and the apparent resignation that things are just they way they are connected to our international fear of apologizing for it. Marc Andreessen of Facebook board of directors fame, notoriously tweeted this past week, “Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?” After he was understandably and publicly criticized for his absurd claim and racist rant, Mr. Andreessen again took to Twitter, this time with this stand-in for an apology: “I apologize for any offense caused by my earlier tweet about Indian history and politics. I admire India and the Indian people enormously.” He ended his expression of admiration with, “I now withdraw from all future discussions of Indian economics and politics, and leave them to people with more knowledge and experience!”
The subjugation of the majority of the world’s population by a handful of nations ruled by white people is not so readily erased. Nor do public rants about failed business deals deserve a pass because “offense” was “caused” by them. That many white people jumped into the fray to defend Mr. Andreessen and argue that his words were “ill-advised” and not necessarily “politically correct” only serves to point out that the arena of race and racism is an emotional and intellectual oasis for white people as a group.
Then there is the favorite political drama in the US, best viewed by small groups huddled around a screen at home, a flat screen high on the wall of a workplace lunch room, or a bar — any bar. Someone turns up the volume so we can all hear the squeaky, choked confession of infidelity by a male politician over the din of the clicking cameras. He clutches the podium, probably also hoping it is bullet proof. At his side stands his understanding wife, face ashen, probably wondering why the hell she needs to be there given that public humiliation doesn’t rank high on her list of must haves. The really good shows come with some clap trap about understanding, this “one mistake,” and proving to voters that this is not “who I am.” There are so many flaws in this plot that I usually want to scream. Here are just a few:
- For what precisely are you apologizing? You have no pledge of marital fidelity to me, so I don’t care.
- What exactly do you regret? Getting caught?
- What is your biggest fear? If it is loss of campaign revenue, then please send this information out via email to your actual donors. I am already not likely to vote for you, so save this public flaying.
- How about telling us what you learned! When you got into that young guy’s shorts while on a golf outing and your wife was getting a make over back in your jurisdiction, did you learn something about your bisexuality? The limits of your marital honesty? The pressures of office? The impossible situation of rent boys?
- Why aren’t you just doing what Gary Hart initially — and in my mind, appropriately — did when caught with Donna Rice? Remind us that this just is NOT the business of the electorate.
My mother used to say, “Sorry is cheap. What are you going to do?” I am prone to agree with her, but would add that sorry on its own is incomplete.