May 25, 2008

Insincere Public Apologies Getting Old

I am tired of public figures apologizing when it is often clear that they do not mean it. A sincere apology is one thing, especially when it is accompanied by behavior change. However, this is exceedingly rare. Most of the apologies to which we are treated on a daily basis lack sincerity and are paired with the infuriating expectation that even a weak apology leads to immediate forgiveness.

In my humble opinion, Bill Clinton's apology for getting a blowjob and then lying about it was a low point from which we have still not recovered. It set a modern precedent that Americans were suckers for apologies and would forgive anything in exchange for sufficient groveling. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Bill's apology was insufficient - I don't believe it was necessary in the first place. I'm just saying that he set the bar for the public apology, one with which we remain stuck.

Remember Don Imus, Mel Gibson, and Michael Richards? What did they really apologize for? It wasn't for being racists or anti-Semites. It was for the poor judgment they exercised in expressing their views in the way they did. At least in Gibson's case, these views were no secret and this was no momentary loss of control.

The worst part of our apology culture is the expectation that we must forgive anyone who has apologized, regardless of their offense and of the nature of their apology. I cannot tell you how many times I've said something disparaging about one of these people, only to be scolded with, "Yeah, but at least he apologized." Does that mean the act is erased, even when the apology was half-assed?

Take my favorite example of the past year, Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago). Her bigoted tirade puts the others to shame because it came from the floor of the state legislature during a formal exercise of her political power. News of Rep. Davis' words was slow to emerge, but calls for her apology and/or resignation came swiftly and spread throughout the freethought community. When Rep. Davis, who still has her job by the way, did apologize, it was only to the atheist activist at whom her tirade was immediately directed. This was a good start, but it was not enough. Evidently, she decided that the millions of other American atheists were not worth her time. I am still waiting for a sincere public apology and/or Rep. Davis' resignation.

And now we have Hillary Clinton, the failed Democratic candidate who may have ended her own political career with a highly inappropriate statement suggesting that one of the reasons she has outstayed her welcome in the Democratic primary is that her opponent, Barack Obama, might still be assassinated. Yes, I've watched hours of analysis and read quite a few diverse reactions. Her statement blew me away, and no amount of spin has yet convinced me that she meant something other than the clear implication. Worse yet was her apology. She basically said that she's sorry if anyone was offended by her comments but seemed to have little understanding about why her statement was so offensive. For the record, let me state that I do not think Clinton was advocating assassination and that Olbermann went way over the top on this one. Nevertheless, the outrage many people are feeling is on target.

To the public figures out there, do not apologize unless you are truly sorry. If you are not planning to change your ways, don't apologize. Instead, use this as an opportunity to stand up to public pressure and make your case for why you are right to do or say what you did or said. We might not agree with you, but at least we'll admire your willingness to stand up for what you believe. And to those I've offended with this post, all apologies.

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