According to Dov Seidman and Andrew Ross Sorkin too many people are offering too many of the wrong kinds of apologies.
Having written about the value of public apology in my book Saving Face, I feel qualified to opine. In it, I emphasized that no one had ever apologized for the greatest foreign policy failure of our time, the Vietnam War.
Whether it was right or wrong to fight in Vietnam, the Kennedy-Johnson administration got us into it, escalated it, and mismanaged it. In the absence of leaders who were willing to admit to their own failure, fault devolved on the soldiers who fought and died there.
I doubt that my book provoked the wave of public apologies, but I like to think that it had some influence.
In any event, Seidman thinks that the situation has gotten out of control. From a country where no one really apologized, we have become a nation where everyone apologizes all the time. The glut of apologies, he argues, has caused the gesture to lose its meaning. I am not quite sure that it’s a “dangerous crisis,” but the point is worth considering.
In Seidman’s words:
Business, politics, media, academia, sports and celebrity – virtually every aspect of our public lives – are in the midst of a dangerous apology crisis. That truth has been with us for some time, but the mea culpas have kept on coming to the point where they are reaching the level of parody.
Seidman recommends that we all limit our use of apology, to around six a year. He explains:
What if we were allowed to deliver only half a dozen apologies each year? Aside from the saintly among us, we’ll each have more occasions than that. What would be the effect of having to apologize “within your means?” We would be much more frugal with the act. Note that I did not say cheap. We would hold the behavior as treasure, not as an easily renewable token to be flicked into a moral turnstile that grants admission for a shot at redemption. Reminded that the pursuit of forgiveness should be treated as precious and rare, we would restore its value — to both the offended and the offender.
As it happens, the uses of apology are complex. There are apologies and then there are apologies.
When you unintentionally jostle someone on the street, you normally say that you are sorry. It is the lowest level of apology. It signifies that your offense was unintended. If you do not apologize, the other person will be right to assume that your gesture was hostile.
Surely, we do not want to limit such expressions of regret. In their absence human interaction would become more coarse and conflict-laden.
But, there is a difference between the mild embarrassment you feel when you inadvertently make a mistake and the shame you feel when you recognize that you have failed on a grand scale.
At the least, the first is mostly individual. The second usually refers to the way you have failed to fulfill a responsibility that you held within a larger group. In both cases a fault requiring an apology involves unintended consequences.
Again, we need to distinguish between different kinds of public apologies. Chris Christie’s apology for closing the George Washington Bridge is not the same as Lance Armstrong’s mea culpa for doping.
If we assume that Chris Christie did not know about the bridge closing his apology showed that he was accepting responsibility that was inherent in his role as governor.
Lance Armstrong, however, was trying to apologize for an intentional act. He cheated. He knew he was cheating. He gained great advantages from cheating.
Under the circumstances his apology counts as insincere. He cannot be expected to forfeit his ill-gotten gains but they should certainly be taken from him.
Note well, in traditional Chinese thought apology can be sincere or insincere. It is assumed, unless proven otherwise, that an apology is sincere. But, that precludes instances like Lance Armstrong’s where the offense is intentional and involves breaking a rule.
If a sincere apology is accompanied by an effort to make amends, at times by retiring from a company or from public life, an insincere apology is an effort to hang on to ill-gotten gains and to avoid prosecution.
Seidman and Sorkin tend to refer, reasonably, to recent apologies. And yet, if we go back in time we recall Bill Clinton’s apology for his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky and Attorney General Janet Reno’s apology for the holocaust of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas.
Even here, the apologies are quite different. If the first sign of a sincere apology lies in the facial expression of the individual who is apologizing, then Janet Reno appeared to be far more sincere than did Bill Clinton.
Janet Reno looked as though she sincerely regretted what happened at the Branch Davidian compound when she apologized before a Congressional committee. Bill Clinton looked as though he did not regret anything when he was finally forced to sorta-apologize for the Lewinsky affair. Clinton’s apology was laden with contempt for anyone who dared to judge his behavior.
In the world of faked apologies, Bill Clinton seems to have set the standard. As with Lance Armstrong, Clinton was looking to avoid punishment for having cheated. His greatest regret seems to have been … getting caught.
Normally, people hold those whose apologies are insincere to account. In Reno’s case, one suspects that no one believed that she was anything more than a stand-in for those who had given the order. Question: who do you think really gave the order?
In Clinton’s case, his dereliction seemed more personal than public. It did not appear to involve his conduct of his office.
Bill Clinton cheated on his wife, but most people did not believe that he was cheating on his country.
In many ways, most people were probably wrong about this point. When a leader gets caught in flagrante delicto, he compromises the dignity of his office. He diminishes the amount of respect it commands. He has made it into more of a theatrical performance; as was his apology.
America does not have too many examples of recent, sincere apologies. Allow me to recall the 50-year-old case of John Profumo. As British minister of defense Profumo got involved with a prostitute who was also servicing a Soviet naval attaché. Thus, his affair had the potential to compromise national security.
Profumo apologized for his dereliction, resigned from office and retired from public life. He went to work as a social worker in London. After several years, he was welcomed back into society and was honored by the Queen as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Of course, he was honored for his charity work.
It is possible to recover one’s reputation after failing and apologizing. But, no one does it right away and no one does it without giving up something of great value.
Obviously, the extent of one’s authority and the egregiousness of one’s failure determine what one should give up. An apology that costs nothing is, by definition, insincere.
Aside from the expression of sincere shame, someone who apologizes is pledging not to do it again. As I have often pointed out, even on this blog, an apology implies a promise never to do it again. If you apologize for cheating and then cheat again, you have gone back on your word and your future apologies will count as insincere.
Now apology has become theatrical. Even though celebrities are distorting the ritual of apology, it is worthwhile, as Seidman and Sorkin suggest, to hold public figures to a higher standard.
As for the notion of a moratorium of frivolous or excessive apologies, I believe that we do better not to go down that road.
In the first place, who knows whether people will stop saying that they are sorry in situations where a quick and small apology will facilitate social harmony.
Second, a Confucius might have said, an insincere apology is better than no apology at all. Or as 12 steppers would have it: fake it until you make it.
The solution to an excess of fake apologies is holding people to account. If they apologize and do not give up anything, if they apologize and then go back on their word, the public at large ought to reject them.