Anatomy of a Public Apology

March 7, 2012

Everyone has to apologize every once in a while.

It’s no fun.  And the more people you have to apologize in front of, I imagine, the less fun it is.

Public apologies have become a staple of our cultural diet.  Every month or two, we expect a celebrity, pastor, or politician to apologize to us.  In fact, we demand it.  We foam at the mouth.  We jeer and flaunt the person’s wrongdoing…

…And it’s really annoying.

You know that Rush Limbaugh apologized on his show on Monday.  He will not be the last person to apologize for saying something he should not have.  And so, the next time we all have an apology coming to us, here’s three super-annoying habits everyone can stop doing.

I Denounce You and You and You

If there’s one really annoying habit our hyper-politically-correct culture has, it’s how competitive we are at “denouncing” insensitive comments.

Seriously, every last blogger and reporter who has mentioned Rush’s comments has spent thousands of words making sure their audience knows how awful they think the word “slut” is.  Everyone has to outdo the last guy, do a little more denouncing than the last guy, throw a couple more stones than the last guy heaved, so everyone knows we really mean it…like way more than the last guy.  You think that guy’s pissed about the word “slut?”  Well, I’m really super righteously pissed off!  That’s how sensitive and politically correct I am!

Public apologies just become an easy opportunity to cash in and make yourself look super extra sensitive and politically correct.  It’s phony, it’s garbage, and I don’t buy it.

Never Accept It

Everyone knows when a kid is made to apologize but he doesn’t mean it.  He drags his feet, looks at the floor and mumbles, “I’m sorry.”  And Mom says, “Sorry for what?”  

Chances are, if you are not a fan of Rush, you’ve been eating this up.  You’re hoping and praying that this is the beginning of the end for him (it isn’t.)  And you probably listened to his apology and thought to yourself how insincere he sounded.  Surely, you said, he’s just apologizing to stop the sponsors from running off.  “He’s just saying sorry because he has to!  He really thinks that girl is a slut!”

And if you are one of Rush’s fans, you thought just the opposite.

People did the same thing when Ed Schultz apologized (and was suspended) for calling Laura Ingraham a slut, or when David Letterman spent seven minutes apologizing for calling Sarah Palin a slut, or when Don Imus or Tiger or Elliot or Anthony or Mel or anyone else apologized.  If we loved them before, we were quick to forgive and forget.  If not, there’s nothing they could say to earn our forgiveness.

Public apologies just show how willfully selective our hearing is.  We take someone at their word when they say something idiotic, we are righteously convinced that they really meant that terrible thing.  But there’s no way we’ll believe them when they apologize.  Forgiveness is not an option.

Now Apologize, Because You Hurt My Feelings

And of course, if there’s one thing whiny Americans love to do, it’s to demand an apology.  We want to be first in line because we have a right to never be offended!

Demanding an apology is a loud and satisfying thing to do.  Know what else?  It makes point #2 run rampant.  The quicker we are to demand an apology, the easier it is to never accept the apology.  We never give anyone the chance to apologize on their own accord.  We demand it.  Then we say, “He’s just apologizing because we’re making him!  He doesn’t mean it!  I do not accept that!”

Next time someone wrongs you, how about not demanding an apology.  Let them realize their mistake on their own and make a sincere apology to you.  Then accept it and let it go.

And as far as the famous people go, you don’t deserve an apology from them.  They didn’t do anything to you.  Quit this righteous indignation farse.

What do you think?  Is our culture addicted to apologies?  Are we able to accept apologies, or do we just like to demand them?  Do you demand apologies from the people you live with, or do you let them apologize?

26 responses to Anatomy of a Public Apology

  1. I was one of those people who didn’t buy his apology, but Rush only apologized when he was forced to, after using the word over the course of two days. And I was annoyed at the inevitable orgy of indignation that followed, but I felt I had to say something when I saw Christians defending him and downplaying what he said, saying he didn’t deserve to lose advertisers or get fired. Maybe if he was a shock comic, not the voice a lot of politicians and voters respect. My argument wasn’t “just look at how self-righteous I am”, so much as “I can’t believe you’re defending this.” Especially if you’re conservative, now would be a great time to show people like him and Newt Gingrich don’t speak for the rest of us. It would be cool (and less obnoxious IMHO) if the outcry came from Rush L’s own camp.

    Maybe I should have just let it go, because I hate wasting “ink” on celebrity gossip, but it bugs me when Christians won’t call wrong wrong. I don’t care about “bad enough”, or how offensive it is, just admit it’s wrong.

    • This is what I’ve been thinking as well. I’ve heard an awful lot of “But what about Bill Maher, he says sexist stuff!” from conservative Christian circles after this thing blew up, but not a whole lot of calling out bad behavior for what it is.

      And never mind the fact that Democrats in office don’t kowtow to liberal talking heads to the degree that the Republican party does to Limbaugh and his ilk.

      You want to talk public apologies, remember the chairman of the RNC apologizing to Rush Limbaugh? When was the last time a Democrat got positively sweaty over the prospect of offending George Carlin?

      • But see, there’s that whole attitude of “the other side is way more corrupt than our side it,” and it’s just not true. Comparing George Carlin to Rush is like apples to oranges. Maybe I wasn’t satisfied with the liberal outcry over comments from Bill Mahar. I could easily conclude that most liberals agree with him that Palin is a slut, based on my own perception of how “outraged” they acted.

    • Yep. We do it on both sides. I love how when one of “our guys” messes up, we dig up some past sin on the other side to justify and minimize it.

  2. Matt–

    If there is one thing that really drives me nuts about our current political climate, it’s how “political correctness” has become confused with “not being an a–hole”.

    Using a racial slur isn’t wrong because it’s “politically incorrect”–it’s because it’s wrong to speak about a fellow human being that way. Plain and simple.

    Same thing with Limbaugh’s rhetoric–if I caught my kid referring to ANY woman, regardless of political stripe, the way Limbaugh did, I would wash his mouth out and stand him in a corner (if I was able to restrain myself from smacking him in the head first.) Not because I’m so afraid that he’s going offend someone’s delicate sensibilities but because that’s NOT the way a civilized person speaks about a woman. Ever.

    I’m pretty sure if Limbaugh had been speaking that way about your wife, sister, or mother you’d feel the same way. And I’m pretty sure the reason you’d be angry wouldn’t be “political correctness.”

    • You’re absolutely right! If someone called my wife a slut, I would be angry, and not out of political correctness. My problem is everyone acting like Rush (or whoever) actually did call their wife a slut! Sure, sometimes we can get mad about things that don’t actually affect us, but I think most people’s indignation is tuned too high and too sensitively to things that have no bearing on them whatsoever.

      • Point taken. I will also try to better avoid the “your guy did it first” trope.

        You might be suprised to find out that I’ve never really considered myself all that liberal. Particularly in college, I always figured I was more “moderate-to-conservative” than those around me.

        Then, the past few years happened. I live in a traditionally “red” state. Where I work, the guys in the doctors’ lounge leave the TV on Fox News around the clock. Every other BMW in the parking lot has a tea party sticker on it. One of the docs here thinks it’s really amusing to leave the latest Glenn Beck rant taped up in the dictation room so that everyone can be “informed.” And this is even outside of the conspiracy-theory laden Facebook posts I get from my brother-in-law for some reason.

        Now, all of a sudden, the fact that I even entertain thoughts like “Obama’s not that great a president, but I’m pretty sure he’s not the Antichrist” or “NPR isn’t actually all THAT left-leaning” or “I’m pretty sure that the government isn’t trying to do experiments on you with flu shots” makes me some kind of radical commie.

        Rush’s most recent statement just seemed to me like one more step toward what seems to be an ongoing march toward complete insanity and, sorry, but, yeah, that pisses me off.

        Maybe it’s misplaced rage on my part, but to be quite honest, I feel like I’ve got no other way to channel it right now.

      • While I don’t think that Rush called my daughters or me a slut (or any of the others who have used this phrase in the past), it does give permission to others to do that in a far more personal way. It normalizes language that should not be used.

        We would be APPALLED if Rush said the n-word (we don’t even type that one) because that has simply passed from civilized vocabulary almost completely.

        Personally, I don’t care if he apologizes or not. But I’m not upset about anger about an incredibly hurtful and dismissive word being casually thrown about by a public figure. Scrubbing that from public discourse is a good thing and I fully support those who have that as a goal.

  3. Love the post … and I refuse to apologize for that!

    It has been said for a long time that everything is bigger here in Texas. Well, I think that attitude has rubbed off on the whole country, and it is that attitude which creates the environment Matt describes so well. The “I have to be bigger, faster, tougher, more indignant than the next guy” syndrome.

    Sure, there are times that demand a public apology. But have we really descended to a place where a political shock jock captures our attention this much? Really? Doesn’t being this outraged just lend political legitimacy to a guy who is basically an entertainer? And I would say the same thing about Jon Stewart (who I love).

  4. Seems to me that whether the person is being offensive or apologizing, or accepting or not accepting the apology, the overriding result is that they’re getting lots of attention. In the media, negative attention is better than none at all.

    I prefer to read my news online, and I have a variety of feeds from both sides of the aisle plus overseas. When I saw what this particular to-do was about, I simply stopped reading those articles. Problem solved.

    • Amen. Rush is getting exactly what he wants in this–a TON of attention. By raising a huge outcry about it, it just increases his notoriety, and therefore, his ratings. He may have lost some sponsors temporarily, but they’ll be back or new ones will take their place.

  5. Amen to whomever above said it’s not about being PC or not, but about being an a-hole. Amen also on the issue of being outraged at everything. Making people resign for any screw up. I’m on an email list that is constantly asking me to sign petitions for this and that, “tell such-and-such company that their commercial was offensive to so-and-so!” Seriously?

    All that said, I read this post in a new light today because a good acquaintance of ours is a local public servant who royally screwed up recently. He knows he did and he is facing the personal and legal consequences, and I believe he is truly sorry. I hope I can be so gracious in the future to fallible leaders who don’t happen to be friends.

  6. I had to read this a couple of times, especially that last paragraph. Wow! To not demand an apology, but to express the pain the offender has caused you and leave it up to them to apologize? To speak in sadness rather than anger? To let God handle the situation so that His justice prevails? That is really hard, Matt, especially for a hard-hearted, self-righteous person like me. It has pierced my heart and re-enforced some things that God has been telling me.

    God Bless you!

  7. You need to ask yourself: WWJD? Jesus offended people to the point they wanted him dead. I didn’t see him saying he was sorry for turning over a few tables in the temple bazaar. I think Pilot was hoping that he would be remorseful, but he wasn’t. And holy crap, Peter needs to write another epistle with all his apologies.

    Public apologies are stupid. Public consumption of apologies is more stupid. It is a political move to move past stupid comments.

    In the end I sort of like the word slut, and I bet it will be in the New International Bible in the next translation.

  8. Rush is not a conservative… He only plays one on radio..! (I’ve listened to him and even bought the matress)…

  9. Thank you for this post, Matt. I agree completely.

    One of the major drawbacks of the Internet is my ability to learn about and get riled up about things that never would have affected me otherwise. I think this is a classic case of that–many, many people who don’t listen to Rush and would never listen to Rush suddenly in a tizzy because of some offensive thing he said on his show.

    (And that’s not to say that he wasn’t wrong–because he was. The things he said were boorish and ugly and should have no place in a civilized society. But his free speech is protected, and what he said has no bearing on my life, and he owes me no apology of any kind.)

    One other side point–some have said that Rush is a “leader of the Republican party”. It doesn’t really change your point even if he was, but the fact is that he isn’t. He’s an entertainer. He says stuff to get attention, to amuse, to titillate.

  10. I felt that Rush *did* insult women everywhere (at least the ones who use birth control) when he called that woman a slut. But I’m not about to demand a public apology, because HE DOESN’T KNOW ME. He doesn’t know her either. The only thing he accomplished with that little stunt is to show his true colors as a misogynist jackass. Insults from total strangers really don’t hold much weight for me. I’m sure he wouldn’t be hurt by what I say about him either. 😉

    However, if I’d had a company advertising on his show, it wouldn’t be advertising there anymore. Not that this is the first offensive thing he’s ever said…. “This man does not represent us!”

    • See, you are exactly what is RIGHT with our culture. You are insulted, but so what? He’s a stranger!

    • This highlights one of the difficulties with the public bru haha over the things people say. Rush’s objection was that Sandra Fluke wants the government or insurance companies to be required to pay for birth control…so his joke-to-make-a-point was “What do you call a woman who wants someone else to pay her to have sex?” He wasn’t making a blanket statement about women who use birth control.
      THAT SAID…his “joke-to-make-a-point” was over the top, and it’s right that he apologized. I only point it out because, in the tons of “post offense fury”, there has been a lot of misrepresentation of what was said, but that isn’t unique to this situation with Rush.

      So, with any public apology, you get a twisted version of the old saw about communication… you know the “What I meant, what I said, what you what you thought I said, what you thought I meant” thing.
      This one is “What he said, what some people thought he said, what they thought of him for saying it, what they wrote or said he said, what they said about what he said, what other people said about what they said about what he said…..” It does get messy.
      Great post!

  11. I have stayed out of the Rush debacle mostly because the person who has posted most about it on FB is someone I’ve gotten into it with more times than I’d like to think about and I just didn’t want another fight. So I purposefully remained (and remain) ignorant of most of the facts of this particular situation. This is what I know: Rush said something nasty (no news there); people got offended/self-righteous over what Rush said (again, nothing new); sponsors bolted (also not shocking); Rush apologized (well, duh!).

    Having said all of that (and knowing nothing of the substance of Rush’s apology, sincere or not), I had a good friend one time say that “an apology that includes the word ‘but’ is really just an explanation.” That’s really stuck with me (my husband hates it when I trot that one out, let me tell you!) and now I try to make sure that my apologies are actual apologies – not merely another chance to explain what I did and why I did it.

  12. I can understand him only apologizing after he was “forced” to do so. I can’t stand having to be politically correct all the time. If I truly believe that something is some way, I should be able to voice my opinion. If people don’t like it, they can stop listening at any time. But forcing someone to apologize is like saying, “Please lie to us and say you’re sorry so we’ll feel better.” If an apology has to be forced, it shouldn’t happen.

  13. Thank you for this, Matt. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

    The lame apologies and ridiculous indignation have to stop.

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