The public apology has become a formula repeated so many times that any actual sincerity buried within the doublespeak has been lost altogether. That, compounded with the speed at which we demand repentance, means that there is little room for the commensurate forgiveness that the apology-acceptance cycle requires. And hence, public apologies, for all their pomp and circumstance, are actually a harmful way of circumventing real dialogue and transformation.
Take, for instance, Lena Dunham’s recent guest editor letter for The Hollywood Reporter, which was released online Wednesday. In it, the Girls creator showed remorse for how she had publicly defended her friend and Girls writer Murray Miller back in 2017 after he was accused of sexually assaulting actress Aurora Perrineu. Though she uses the phrase “I’m sorry” emphatically at one point in the letter, Dunham’s tone makes it clear that the apology is less about how her words harmed Perrineu and more about how they negatively impacted her own public image. No doubt that Dunham does feel regretful about the much-maligned statement she made last year discrediting Perrineu; the only problem is that, much like most public apologies, it rings false because the apology itself is littered with the kind of language that sidesteps responsibility.
“So many of us have spent such a long time hiding our trauma. At least I know I had—even as a chronic oversharer, I tended to leave huge swaths of experience out of my story—and I walked around feeling like such a victim,” she writes in part. “Like so many women (so many people), I disguised my pain with medication and stuff and chronic overwork, with social media and mindless dating and the random day-to-day drama we generate to stay out of our own experience. I never stopped, much less stopped to consider that I might be capable of traumatizing somebody, too (the exact complaint I’ve always had about old white man artists).”
In other words, her apology is actually a request for recuse: she has suffered from trauma, and therefore she should be forgiven for her “inexcusable,” questionable behavior. It’s the same line of illogical logic that Kevin Spacey employed when he came out as gay after being accused of sexually harassing and sexually assaulting numerous underage men. That he chose that moment in his life to come out about his sexuality was damaging to the LGBTQ community at large, and it distracted from the main point at hand: that he had made inappropriate advances toward a minor. His public apology, too, was meant to silence critics and hint at an upcoming season of change, a deep excavation of self, even if that hinting never translated into action.
Or take, for instance, the case of Jeffrey Epstein, an absurdly rich multi-millionaire whose connections include Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Michael R. Bloomberg, Prince Andrew, and several members of the Kennedy clan. Recently, he settled an ongoing civil suit filed against him by a number of teenage girls who accused him of sexual abuse just as the jury selection was set to begin. The deal he struck with lawyer Bradley Edwards silenced the girls; as part of the deal, he forked over exorbitant amounts of money, and coughed up an apology—though, curiously, not to the victims themselves, but to Edwards.
Epstein also struck a deal back in 2008 after he was charged with soliciting sex from a minor; he served 13 months of an 18-month sentence in the Palm Beach stockade, where he was allowed to actually leave and go to work every day, sometimes returning as late as 10 p.m. His actions then, and his words now, signify little by way of regret or learning or progress. In the same way that he essentially bought his freedom through the settlement, so, too, does he assume that his slate will be wiped clean with a public apology.
It’s not an uncommon sentiment among public figures these days. Megyn Kelly, who prides herself in not being a “PC person,” has ruffled her share of feathers over the years with her at-times tone deaf approach to the news. In late October, however, her off-color remarks went from unsavory and ignorant to straight-up racist and appalling. She was fired by NBC, but not before issuing a self-serving apology that read as desperate rather than repentant. In the aftermath of her departure, it is doubtful that she actually felt ashamed for her misstep so much as regretful that she’d lost her job over the “PC” nature of the times. This is obvious in the fact that she was awarded a $30 million settlement in order to keep the peace; in the end, the apology that the public demanded was simply lip service to save face. It’s unlikely, even after losing her job, that she recognizes the deeply problematic thinking that drove her to say what she did. So what good does her slapdash apology do for anyone?
The frequency with which public figures issue apologies has all but relegated them to background noise, with each boldfaced name cycling through headlines one day only to be replaced the next by yet another offender, and another and another. In the fall of 2017, the #MeToo movement brought with it a flood of public apologies from men like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Casey Affleck, Louis C.K., Matt Lauer, Bill O’Reilly, and Mario Batali, among many others. Each man then embarked on a methodical apology tour, with redemption set as the final destination. Some of these men already believe they have arrived.
Public apology itself is nothing new. It’s a longstanding practice within public relations, an industry largely believed to have originated in 1906, when Ivy Lee and his firm, Parker and Lee, were called upon to mitigate bad press for the Pennsylvania Railroad after a literal train wreck in Atlantic City. Though company executives wanted to withhold information about the accident from the press, Lee opted to do things his own way, issuing the first-ever press release and acting as an information gatekeeper.
The public apology is based on the same concept of control: the narrative has been carefully molded long before it reaches the public. What’s different today, however, is that social media is diffusing what limited efficacy public apologies might have had in the past due to two major factors: the expectation of instant gratification and an oft-damaging group-think mentality. In other words, the context within which public apologies are delivered these days leads to an artifice that is more about quick appeasement and appearance than actual regret. We demand the appearance of repentance without asking ourselves why we should forgive.
Last October, when news of Weinstein’s decades of sexual misconduct unleashed a deluge of accusations and subsequent public statements, I was working as a freelancer at Rolling Stone; one of my primary beats was covering the #MeToo movement. And as a result, I got very familiar with the language and the speed of these public apologies, the formula that each of the accused men followed to a tee. The formula goes something like this:
Issue a public apology tinged with half-denials and conditional regret.
Publicly lose assets — monetary, professional, familial.
Quietly recede from the public spotlight to “reflect deeply” on wrongdoing.
Allow enough headlines and time to pass so that the impact of the transgressions feels subdued, and then plan a subsequent comeback, complete with headline-making interviews about how others need to learn and listen and do better.
Dunham did this. Spacey is in the midst of doing this. Kelly is on step three. And Epstein skipped ahead to four. Notably, this sequence of events is almost always exclusively about the perpetrator and not the victim, and the timeframe in which they take place always feels disproportionate to the offense.
The problem with the formula is that it is founded on a set of faulty expectations: that on the perpetrator’s end, the sooner an apology is issued, the quicker the situation can be diffused. And on the public’s end, that every action demands an instant reaction.
But this is not, however, how true apologies actually work. In Cynthia Frantz’s influential 2005 study, “Better Late Than Early,” she explains that in most cases of wrongdoing, the perpetrator thinks first of himself and how he will appear to the person or persons he has offended, rather than the emotional state of those who have been wronged. It takes time to flip that script; in our age of instant gratification, that time simply doesn’t exist.
This is problematic because apologies, after all, are about those who were hurt by another’s words or actions, and not about the perpetrator. We instill this idea of “sorry” from an early age, but children quickly learn that saying sorry is often just a way to skirt around an issue, rather than actually address it. (Here, the childhood phrase “I said I was sorry” comes to mind.) This is where public apologies have really gone wrong: Those effected need to be fully heard before an apology can even begin to take effect, but the speed at which we demand these public apologies doesn’t allow for that. And as a result, even sincere-but-swift apologies fall flat. The “it’s not me, it’s you” style of non-apology (read: “I’m sorry that my words offended you”) is exactly the kind of reactionary public apology that causes more harm than help, breeding a culture of defensiveness and resentment that prevents actual introspection, reckoning and progress.
There’s another explanation for the ineffectiveness of public apologies, and it lies in microeconomics: the law of diminishing returns, or, the decreasing value of a thing that occurs too often. In the ongoing pattern of bad behavior and empty apologies that continues to permeate the news cycle, the efficacy of apologies has actually decreased to the point of impotence. And over the years, so little has changed in the way that we both expect and reject public apologies. So if the system is indeed broken, then why are we continuing to demand something that fails to mean anything anymore?