Why is it so hard to say sorry convincingly and mean it?
That’s the question I have after several weeks of famous people apologizing for bad behavior. They have apologized for not honoring the writer’s strike (Drew Barrymore). They have apologized for speaking up on behalf of a rapist (Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis). They have apologized for belittling musicians who are not white men (Jann Wenner.) They have apologized, belatedly and begrudgingly, for groping and vaping in a theater (hello, Representative Lauren Boebert).
For all their supposed regret, not one of these people spoke up until the outcry — from a few million people on the Internet, various television pundits and the people who were harmed or offended — had become deafening. Even my 8-year-old son knows the difference between a desultory eye-rolling “sorry” and genuine remorse. More importantly, he understands the importance of repairing the damage he caused, regardless of his own discomfort or embarrassment.
It’s this last part that makes them all seem so especially shallow.
As a talk show host, Ms. Barrymore has been lauded in part for her empathy. She is vulnerable, and that makes her guests feel like they can be, too. But even nice people can be self-centered when they’re on the defensive. That’s what happened when people objected to the news that her show would return to production despite the writers’ strike.In a teary, rambling video on Instagram, which was later deleted, she spoke about how hard the situation had been — for her. “I didn’t want to hide behind people. So I won’t. I won’t polish this with bells and whistles and publicists and corporate rhetoric. I’ll just stand out there and accept and be responsible.”(Ms. Barrymore’s awkward, jumbled sentences unwittingly demonstrated how dearly she needs those writers.) Finally, she included a staple of the public figure apology genre: “My intentions have never been in a place to upset or hurt anyone,” she said, “It’s not who I am.”
“This is not who I am” is a frequent refrain from people who are worried that they’re going to be defined by their worst moments. It’s an understandable concern, given the human tendency to pay more attention to negative events. People are always more than the worst thing they’ve done. But it’s also true that the worst things they’ve done are also part of who they are.
Somehow, Mila Kunis’s scripted apology was even worse. She and Mr. Kutcher had weathered criticism for writing letters in support of their former “That ’70s Show” co-star Danny Masterson after he was convicted of rape. Facing her public, she spoke in the awkward cadence people have when they haven’t memorized their lines and don’t know where the emphasis should fall. “The letters were not written to question the legitimacy [pause] of the judicial system,” she said, “or the validity [pause] of the jury’s ruling.” For an actress, it was not a very convincing performance. Mr. Kutcher, who is her husband, was less awkward in his delivery, but his defense was no more convincing. The letters, he explained, were only “intended for the judge to read,” as if the fact that the couple operated behind the scenes made it OK. They both looked uncomfortable enough to inspire comparisons to a hostage video.
Congresswoman Boebert, thrown out of a theater along with her date for inappropriate behavior, initially dismissed the incident as harmless fun. “I plead guilty to laughing and singing too loud!” she wrote on X (formerly Twitter). But once a video surfaced of her vaping as well as groping and being groped by her date, she backtracked. Blaming the stress of divorce, she said “I simply fell short of my values” — another variation on “this is not who I am.” As for the awkward fact that her initial response did not even acknowledge the actions she was now asking people to forgive, she said, “It was not my or my campaign’s intention to mislead, but we do understand the nature of how this looks.”
Then there is Jann Wenner, the co-founder of Rolling Stone and a towering figure in popular music. In an interview with The Times, he suggested that women and people of color did not deserve inclusion in his book about rock ’n’ roll masters. That didn’t go well at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, which he helped found. After he was kicked off the board of directors, he apologized, saying the book did not reflect his “appreciation and admiration for myriad totemic, world-changing artists whose music and ideas I revere.”
Saying your book does not reflect your thinking is just a more specialized, even less logical variation on “this is not who I am.”
Not all allegedly misbehaving celebrities make bad apologies. Some don’t apologize at all. Like Ms. Barrymore, Bill Maher recently announced his talk show would resume taping during the writers’ strike. But when he, too, backtracked, he didn’t say he had made a mistake; rather, he said that the writer’s strike could end soon. When four women accused the charismatic provocateur Russell Brand of sexual assault, he denied any fault and claimed to be the victim of a coordinated media attack, which inspired Andrew Tate, Elon Musk and Tucker Carlson — three stooges of the online right, who like to paint people accused of bad behavior as victims of a woke mob — to cheer him on. When Luis Rubiales, the former head of Spain’s football federation, forcibly kissed the player Jenni Hermoso, he followed the lead of Donald Trump, who stubbornly refused to apologize for almost anything, even when pressed by family and his closest staffers. Mr. Rubiales not only failed to offer a convincing apology, he doubled down, defiantly insisting he had done nothing wrong.
As bad as bad apologies are, not apologizing at all is much, much worse — a kind of gaslighting that allows the offender to position himself as the injured party. It’s deeply antisocial behavior, often perpetuated by men who view any kind of accountability as oppression.
But the bad apologies are unfortunate, too, because good apologies are so simple. In Spanish and Portuguese, “I’m sorry” is “disculpa” and “desculpe” which connect to the idea of culpability. In French it’s “je suis désolée” — I am desolate, sad. I like culpability better. It’s the difference between “I’m sorry I did what I did,” and “I’m sorry that your feelings are hurt,” which even children know is a cop-out, and which is infuriating when adults say it.
The first step in a good apology is acknowledging harm. The second is expressing genuine regret, and where possible, acknowledging our shortcoming. Our intentions are not always good. Sometimes we’re selfish. Sometimes we don’t know what we’re doing, and sometimes we fail to consider the consequences. If we can admit these things, it helps repair trust.
Then we vow, in good faith, to not perpetuate the same harm again.
The last step is repair. This means directly addressing the harm done — not via self-flaggelation on YouTube nor with any expectation of forgiveness.
A lot of public apologies have been undone by people who complain that despite their contrition, they’ve been canceled. Supposed remorse often morphs into outrage and resentment. Why aren’t they immediately allowed to return to what they were doing before? “But I said I’m sorry!” my 8-year-old says, when he apologizes and still has to face consequences for his actions. Who can blame him? Many adults think an apology by itself should be enough; it rarely is.
Elizabeth Spiers, a contributing Opinion writer, is a journalist and digital media strategist.
Source Photographs by MirageC and Heynicepictures/Getty Images
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