Apologies Don't Mean Anything Anymore

Enough already with the apologies.

We’ve turned ourselves into a nation of apologizers. Or, more precisely, a nation of people demanding apologies.

We’re up to our eyeballs in apology ultimatums. Actor Michael Richards was barraged with demands to apologize for hurling racial slurs at hecklers during a comedy club appearance, but when he did, it wasn’t enough. His career is ruined, supposedly. Likewise, a professional basketball player, Damon Jones of Cleveland, called a press conference to apologize for getting booted out of a game, but for some it was “too late.” In a recent call for public groveling, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) needed to apologize to soldiers in Iraq for implying that they’re dropouts and losers.

Rush Limbaugh had to apologize to Michael J. Fox for doubting his afflictions. Rep. Charlie Rangel (D.-N.Y.) for calling Vice President Dick Cheney a "son of a bitch."
Ted Haggard, an evangelical Christian leader, for paying for gay sex and hypocritically violating his preachments. Republicans for having anything to do with evangelicals. Idaho Gov. Jim Risch for ordering an emergency hunt of 160 elk that had escaped from a hunting preserve. The sponsors of a TV ad about a Florida constitutional amendment for demeaning Italian-Americans. President Bush for … well, everything.

In the one notable exception, no one expected an apology from O.J. Simpson and his publisher for the witless book about how he could have murdered his estranged wife Nicole Simpson and her boyfriend Ron Goldman, and none was given.

Normally, however, if you don’t apologize, then you are required to apologize for not apologizing.

As Mel Gibson and Trent Lott discovered, an apology sometimes isn’t good enough. Bowing and scraping are required. Or reparations, even if the offense occurred a century ago. British Prime Minister Tony Blair apologized for the deaths of millions of Irish during the Potato Famine, but his regrets fell short because he didn’t drop a bag of money onto my Irish lap.

The demands for public contrition and flogging have become an epidemic. You know this is so when Republicans, less prone to and skilled at demanding apologies, have joined the chorus by trying to squeeze an apology out of Kerry. Kerry said he apologized—we have his word on it—but truth is? It was an artless non-apology, in which he in effect suggested that he was sorry if someone was so stupid that he couldn’t understand that Kerry was making a joke. It was no better than the classic and transparent non-apology in which someone—usually a politician—admits that “mistakes were made,” but fails to mention that they were his mistakes.

There are nuances. The truly bold at this game can turn a demand for an apology to their advantage. For example, if you are a Republican who is demanding an apology from Kerry, you’ll find Democrats turning the tables and taking the offensive by huffing, “We demand an apology for the 655,000 Iraqi civilians that have died as a result of the invasion of Iraq.” I, in turn, demand an apology from the incompetents who tried to pass off this wildly inaccurate guess as science and the media for so gullibly repeating it.

We might as well require a standing demand for apologies from anyone who dares to open his mouth in public. For too many Americans, the only way to “restore civility to American discourse” is to sic the apology coppers on anyone who dares express an opinion. There’s no use even talking to, much less debating with, anyone whose demand for an apology is always on his lips. The demand for an apology trumps all reason and reality that might have been brought into the discussion.

I long for a Steve Martin moment, when the highly visible target of demands for a public apology calls a press conference, stands before the microphone, curls a lip and sneers, “Well, excuuuuuse me.”

It won’t happen, because the politics of apology—the logical extension of the politics of suffering and victimization—won’t allow it. Here’s how it works: First, show that someone (preferably yourself) is suffering. Then, accuse someone else of causing that suffering, and presto, you have a victim. Anytime you have a victim, you have a loathsome, mean-spirited troll. In the worldview of the apology commanders (Shall we call them apolocommanders? Sorry.), there must be a victimizer for every victim. It’s just not possible for anyone to have a problem, no matter how small or large, without being someone’s victim.

The word “apology” once was a useful and precise noun, whose definition has been corrupted by apology demanders who wouldn’t recognize its original meaning, going back to Plato: a reasoned argument or writing in justification of something, such as a philosophical construct. It was explanation, not regrets. Today, the meaning has been updated to “a regretful, public acknowledgment of a wrong,” which is fine, except that a “wrong” in today’s world of moral relativism has become a totally subjective thing. Now, an apology is a tool used to throttle anyone who disagrees or hurts your feelings.

Which is to say that demands for an apology are tools to make the offended party feel better about his own opinions, as weak as they may be. The purpose of an apology isn’t the redemption of the person committing the wrong; it’s to make the apology demanders feel superior, to gain a political win.

Otherwise, we might hear “I forgive you” a little more often.