The Folly of Apology Demanding

Posted January 13, 2010 at 11:56am

When we learned that Tiger Woods was not monogamous, we asked him to grovel. Instead he went AWOL, pondering, reflecting and most assuredly not speaking in public. Now it’s Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) time to face the calls for a public apology. After noting that Barack Obama’s skin color and dialect suits him for the presidency, Reid stated that he was sorry, and the POTUS quickly accepted Reid’s apology. But former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder (D) wants Reid to apologize to America.[IMGCAP(1)]In the Internet age, admitting wrong insufficiently satisfies our collective need for repentance. It is easier now to be outraged and offended, more so than when time and space were part of our daily exercise. Throw in a polarized political class, and the apology, or more precisely, the non-apology, has now become an integral part of our vernacular. Public officials who cross the proverbial line of what constitutes offense now must recognize the error of their ways through verbal contrition. They must articulate how deeply sorry they are. To state that one’s words were spoken in haste, or that one’s comments were mistakenly taken out of context, or that personal demons promulgated malfeasance, is to fan the flames of incendiary outrage.As athletes (e.g., Gilbert Arenas) and media celebrities (e.g., David Letterman, Mel Gibson) must express remorse, so too must our politicians, many of whom previously double-majored in hubris and denial. The litany of politicians relegated to such spoken absurdities is a long one, so much so that including a few would undoubtedly be interpreted by pundits as evidence of bias. What, you included Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) but omitted Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.)? How could you have cited Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) without also mentioning the Rev. Jesse Jackson, former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D), former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) or former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.)? As someone who collects these ostensible apologies, I can assure you that the list is extensive. Fallibility — regarding infidelity, humor, excessive booze consumption, or simple greed — is part of the human condition. They also help speechwriters, political consultants and pundits pay for more than a few Woodley Park, Chevy Chase or Bethesda mortgages, not to mention Sidwell, Gonzaga Prep and St. Albans tuitions.Enter stage center left, Senator Reid. A few weeks ago, Reid suggested that Republican dilatory tactics were tantamount to civil rights obstructionism. He must have known that such a parallel would incite, infuriate and anger his political foes. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele foolishly took Reid’s bait, proudly defending the GOP as he demanded an apology. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) engaged in further comedic semantics, requesting that Reid “if not apologize, certainly clarify his remarks.—Reid has re-emerged with comments about Obama’s electability that can best be described as intemperate. But why the demand by others to apologize? Surely McCain and Wilder know that apologies should not be forced. They need not be psychologists to realize that such calls for contrition are by definition the antithesis of expressing genuine forgiveness.Rather, the request for an apology is a 21st-century political tactic. It keeps the error in the news under the guise of sincerity. The folly of apology demanding artificially assumes that one really cares about the sinner, and the sin, when in reality it is ensuring that the mistakes remain in the 24/7 news cycle.Reid’s latest remarks may resuscitate Jay Leno’s comedy writers for another few weeks, but we should be clear. Anything Reid says, and anything asked of him, is now moot. A laconic statement will result in accusations that such brevity reveals insincerity. A longer press release, made after contemplation, will be interpreted by the punditocracy as evasive and unforgivable tardiness.The forced apology is nothing more than pusillanimous rhetoric, divorced from shame, disgrace or contrition, and replete with hedging and selfishness. We have become numb to such utterances, so much so that we now consider the non-apology normal, political argot. This symbolic charade of verbal gymnastics (I am sorry if you are offended, my words may have been taken out of context) has now become surpassed by a related nonsensical exercise — the demand for such drivel.In “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,— John Wayne says to his young cavalry, “Don’t apologize — it’s a sign of weakness.— Perhaps, but non-apologies are feebler. “Apologies may restore some dignity,— Martha Minow writes, “but not the lives as they existed before the violations.— It is the restoration of dignity that is lost in today’s non-apologies. If we seriously want to elevate our political discourse, then we must try to rid ourselves of the non-apology. The way to do that is not to request them.Robert M. Eisinger is the dean of the School of Liberal Arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design.