On Apologies: the Sincere, the Forced, the Cynical and the Harmful

"Apologize! SINCERELY!"

On February 17th, Washington Post political commentator Dana Milbank wrote a column disparaging what he called “forced apologies.” Although the context of his column and the apology he was refusing to make was too silly to bother with* (yes, there really are things too silly for Ethics Alarms to bother with) something told me I should keep his column handy, and indeed, the perfect time to consider Milbank’s argument has arrived. Forced apologies are flying all over the place.He wrote:

“…one of the most annoying components of our decaying political culture [is] false umbrage. Liberals created this form of identity politics, in which an underrepresented group claims persecution, but conservatives have embraced it. One of its most common expressions is the demand for an apology. It’s phony by definition — an apology can’t be sincere if it’s answering a demand — and the reflexive demand (like a demand for a resignation) serves only as an excuse to keep a news story alive. Sorry, but it’s time to put this tired gimmick to rest.”

Milbank’s essay included an impressive catalogue of recent demands for apologies, and since it was published there have been many more, the most recent example, of course, being Rush Limbaugh’s mea culpa for his outburst against Sandra Fluke. His central thesis, however, is wrong.

Here is the hierarchy of apologies, their function and their motivation, 1-10, from most admirable to despicable:

1. An apology motivated by the realization that one’s past conduct was unjust, unfair, and wrong, constituting an unequivocal admission of wrongdoing as well as regret, remorse and contrition, as part of a sincere effort to make amends and seek forgiveness.

2. An apology motivated by the realization that one’s legitimate and defensible action or words caused unanticipated, excessive, or unnecessary harm to a particular party or parties. The apology expresses a sincere regret that the harm occurred.

3. An apology motivated by a desire to accept accountability for an event or occurrence that one may not have caused, but was responsible for in some way.

4. A spontaneous  apology intended to demonstrate compassion and sympathy for the victim or victims of the unavoidable consequences of a necessary action.

5. A spontaneous apology designed to prevent future, preventable harm by expressing regret that a past action was necessary or that it occurred at all.

6. A forced or compelled version of 1-4, when the individual apologizing knows that an apology is appropriate but would have avoided making one if he or she could have gotten away with it.

7. A forced or compelled version of 1-4, in which the individual apologizing may not sincerely believe that an apology is appropriate, but chooses to shows the victim or victims of the act inspiring it that the individual responsible is humbling himself and being forced to admit wrongdoing by the society, the culture, legal authority, or an organization or group that the individual’s actions reflect upon or represent .

8. A forced apology for a rightful or legitimate act, in capitulation to bullying, fear, threats, desperation or other coercion

9. Deceitful apologies, in which the wording of the apology is crafted to appear apologetic when it is not (“if my words offended, I am sorry”). Another variation: apologizing for a tangential matter other than the act or words that warranted an apology.

10. An insincere and dishonest apology designed to allow the wrongdoer to escape accountability cheaply, and to deceive his or her victims into forgiveness and trust, so they are vulnerable to future wrongdoing.

Milbank seems to be arguing that only 1-5 have value, when clearly 6 and 7 can have value as well. They benefit the recipients of the apology, who receive public recognition that they were wronged, and the culture generally, which receives a valuable message that similar wrongdoing will require an equivalent exercise. He should have been focusing narrowly on 8, a forced apology when there is no wrongdoing and no actual harm, and someone is forced to apologize for his or her legitimate, just or necessary act as the result of bullying, fear, threats or other coercion.

This was, in fact, the kind of apology Milbank was refusing to make himself and the inspiration for his article. In these cases, however, there is nothing to justify an apology, and no legitimate purpose to be served by an apology at all. These are not even true apologies, but capitulations, often cowardly or expedient but sometimes reasonable to extortion.

A recent example of this would be Max Bretos’s public apology for using the phrase “chink in the armor” in an interview question about Jeremy Lin. He had been suspended as part of ESPN’s craven reaction to political correctness bullies, and almost certainly ordered to apologize of forfeit his job. His apology-at-gunpoint did more damage that anything he had said, because it appeared to acknowledge the legitimacy of a trumped-up and absurd complaint. For an example of 9, the deceitful non-apology apology, we need look no further than the faux contrition of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who was allowed by his employers at the New York Times to sneer a fake apology for sliming the Mormon faith. “Btw, the comment I made about Mormonism during Wed.’s debate was inappropriate, and I regret it. I’m willing to admit that with no caveats,”  Blow tweeted.  “Btw” was a wink to signal that he regarded any apology as an afterthought; saying his tweet about Romney’s “magic underwear” was “inappropriate” was not the equivalent of saying he was sorry for it, and his last sentence was pure deceit, appearing to admit fault with “no caveats” but actually just admitting that he regretted the tweet, which could and almost certainly did mean only that he regretted outing himself as the pompous, biased unprofessional bigot that he is.

Obama’s apology for the Quran burnings is a classic 5. Yesterday I heard former U.N, Ambassador and Republican hard-liner criticize Obama’s apology because, he said, apologies admit wrongdoing when the burning were at worst a mistake. I don’t know what definition of apology Bolton is using, but apologizing for a mistake that harms someone is neither uncommon or inappropriate. And Rush? Many who detest and distrust him will argue that his apology was only a calculated 10; they could be right, but I don’t think so. ( Bill Clinton’s apology for his Monica Lewinsky-related conduct would be my perfect 10.) I previously thought his apology ranked a 6, though after reading more of how he responded to the first attacks on his original calumny against Ms. Fluke, am now convinced it was more likely a 7, or perhaps a 6.5.

Even at that, his apology has value, and it was important that he make it. Forced apologies accomplish ethical ends. Obviously, voluntary apologies are better, and best of all is to avoid engaging in conduct that we have to apologize for. Since none of us can do that consistently, however, we should all be prepared to apologize early, often, sincerely, humbly, and graciously.


* Sen. John McCain had given a speech in the Senate about his state, Arizona, and its Hispanic population, noting that the chimichanga was believed to have originated there. Milbank had referred to the speech as he ended a Post column about how, in his view, the GOP was alienating Hispanic voters, writing, “ The chimichanga? It may be the only thing Republicans have left to offer Latinos.” Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, tweeted the quote as “the line of the day,” and conservative columnists and talk show hosts claimed that both Messina’s and Milbank’s use of “chimichanga” was racist. Come to think of it, “silly” may be too kind a word for this idiocy.

6 thoughts on “On Apologies: the Sincere, the Forced, the Cynical and the Harmful

  1. “(Thank you for providing the tautology of apologies, btw! Very useful.)”

    I am quoting that directly from a more recent Barry Deutsch comment in your blog, with my most hearty DITTO!

    Jack, your hierarchy of apologies is absolutely excellent “spectrum-izing” of the range of apology-communications – from the most sincere and unmistakable to the most deceptive and hollow. I expect to refer to it very often – re-reading and re-digesting it before, and after, as many “apology moments” (both personally experienced and observed) as there are to remind me of it from hereon. I hope it becomes at least a baseline, if not a common reference as-is, for learners in various classrooms on speech communications, language arts and other social sciences. If I live to teach anything to any of my grandkids (or to any of my grown kids, their peers, and my peers), I intend to teach them about this hierarchy, how to use it, how others may use or abuse it, and how not to abuse it. THANKS!

  2. Pingback: A Taxonomy of Apologies | Alas, a Blog

  3. It reminds me of the whole Tracy Morgan apology tour. He was forced to apologize to save his career. If anything, the apology tour reinforced his beliefs rather than question them. He was forced into apologizing simply because he hurt a couple of peoples feelings and they needed a big ego boost by forcing him into an apology tour. Same thing with Michael Richards and many other celebrities. Whatever happened to “honesty is the best policy”

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