I woke up cranky one morning last week and was unkind to my wife, so I made this card for her. I also love otters and bad puns so from a creative perspective I’d hit the jackpot. I also try to model decent human behavior for my son, and since he’d witnessed me acting like Crankenstein’s Monster, I had once again created a teachable moment by showing him the wrong approach to human relationships.
It would have been easy for me to say “I’m sorry I was cranky, but I didn’t sleep well.” Or, “I apologize for being short, but I’ve just got a lot going on.” I’ve done it before and will probably do it again. Plus, I never sleep well, but that isn’t a get out of jail free card when it comes to how I interact with people.
This is just one version of the non-apology apology where we use the word ‘but’ as a transition to explanations we expect should excuse our poor behavior.
Another version, especially favored by politicians and entertainers, is the “ifpology,” which is instantly recognizable when you hear someone say, “I’m sorry if I offended anyone.” Here the person tries to transfer responsibility for their offense to those who were offended. The word “if” sets the condition by which they are in-fact, not sorry at all. Again, the ifpology is easy to spot:
“I’m sorry if anyone was offended by my homophobic slurs.”
Here the faux apologizer is saying that if no one was offended, this makes their homophobia acceptable and that they therefore have no remorse. When my son and I were discussing this type of non-apology, I jokingly called it “sociopath shorthand.” I was probably only half-joking.
An apology doesn’t include an escape clause exempting us from responsibility. That’s called an excuse. It’s also astonishingly self-centered. The non-apology attempts to divert responsibility for my actions while at the same time asking the person I just mistreated to extend empathy to me; empathy I withheld from them when I acted like a jerk.
The non-apology has been around for centuries and probably emerged right at the exact moment humans figured out how to hurt each other. My son and I love science fiction and I’ve recently had the pleasure of introducing him to some of the classics. While watching 2001: A Space Odyssey it occurred to us that the film may contain the setup for history’s very first non-apology. At the beginning of the film, on the prehistoric African veldt, a tribe of hominids has been driven away from its water hole by a rival tribe. Later, they awaken to find an alien monolith has appeared in their midst.
Influenced by the monolith, they discover how to use a bone as a weapon and after successful hunt return to drive their rivals away with the newly discovered tool. Part of the driving away involves one hominid beating a rival to death with the bone. What we didn’t see is the hominid apologizing for his behavior to the rival tribe, but it probably went something like this:
“I’m sorry I killed Ugurt, but you took our water and that’s not fair. Plus, that monolith over there told us how to use the bone so it’s really his fault.”
Because the blame-shifting trait seems wired into our DNA, (hopefully by an alien monolith), I want my son to learn is how to accept responsibility and apologize without caveat when he screws up. He should be boss level by now because of the endless supply of examples I’m able to provide. The challenge for me as a father is that in American public discourse and especially the internet, examples of authentic apologies are difficult to find.
The public sphere has always been populated by awful people and I don’t believe in golden ages, but it does seem like there was a time when genuine contrition and the accepting of accountability were seen as strengths. It could be the toxic levels of exposure we now have to the awfulness and the refusal on the part of its perpetrators to accept responsibility has made me susceptible to the deceits of nostalgia. I’m still on the fence with that one, but my son and I both love history and without much effort were able to find some good examples, starting with renowned buck-stopper, President Harry S. Truman.
Following the botched attempt to invade Cuba that became known as the Bay of Pigs, John F. Kennedy said, “I’m the responsible officer of the government.” After the Iran-Contra scheme came to light, Ronald Reagan said, “This happened on my watch,” and following a disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina, George W. Bush said, “I take full responsibility for the federal government’s response.”
An A-list actor was recently caught off camera using a homophobic slur and admitted that he hopes other people will learn from his mistake.
“This is a heartbreaking situation for me…in that moment I said a disgusting word that does not at all reflect how I feel about any group of people. I grew up with gay family members. I’m leaving here to go spend the day with one of my closest co-workers and best friend who is gay, who’s getting married, who I’m going to stand at his wedding.”
The celebrity acknowledged the harm his words caused and did so without justifications or excuses.
“I’m not at all defending my choice of words but I am happy to be the poster boy for thinking about what you say and how those words, even if you don’t intend them and how they mean, they are rooted in hate, and that’s bulls—t. I shouldn’t have said that.”
Because my son and I know comics or Star Wars explain pretty much everything, I use Uncle Ben’s advice to Peter Parker/Spiderman on a regular basis.
“With great power comes great responsibility.”
Unfortunately for my son and I, this great power has yet to manifest as the ability to climb up walls or use the Force to pull a crashed X-Wing fighter out of the swamp. As unfortunate is the fact that what we now see in much of public life is that with great power comes impunity and immunity. It can be challenging to sell a teen boy on the idea that there is strength in humility when in the public sphere the very idea of apologizing or admitting fault is often met with resentment and accusations about political correctness.
In our hypercompetitive, theatre-based culture, to apologize or express remorse is for some the same thing as admitting defeat or weakness. The post-fact and post-accountability climate has created conditions in which many public figures have moved beyond even the most insincere forms of non-apology apology.
A well-known TV personality who has made a career out of normalizing racist fear-mongering, recently insisted on the air that Jesus and Santa are white. When asked to apologize, she blamed people for not getting how funny racism is and painted herself as the real victim, complaining about “a knee-jerk instinct by so many to race-bait and assume the worst in people.”
To my son and I, this sounded a lot like sociopath shorthand.
We’ve talked about this version of apology denialism in the context of his history classes and agreed that if you express racist views on a regular basis and are then called a racist, this doesn’t make you a political correctness martyr.
It means people have connected what you say with who you are and are rejecting your hateful worldview. It could also mean you are a racist. It certainly means you lack the intellectual equipment required to predict how expressing racist views on a regular basis is going to be interpreted. In either case, you need help with being a human being, and help often comes in the form of someone saying, “Stop being an a—hole.”
When there is no accountability for being a terrible person, it probably becomes easy to believe your viscous worldview is accurate and acceptable. Behind a lot of the outrage over political correctness—or PCs whiny offspring, cancel culture—is often just an easily bruised ego that has confused humility with humiliation.
When I use a non-apology or refuse to believe one is even warranted, I’m really admitting I view empathy as an inconvenience. The non-apology or apology denial is a way to get what I want by seeming to express regret while accepting no blame. As a child, real or perceived failures on my part were met with a lot of screaming and punching and beating, so sometimes what I want is to stop a conflict and redirect the spotlight being shined on my shortcomings. I’ve made progress on upgrading that software over the years, but still need to be mindful of when a desire to avoid shame is causing me to add insult to injury by being a disingenuous jackwagon.
My son watches how I treat his mom, and if America truly has moved into an age of zero accountability in the public sphere, the only hope I have is to try to show him what true masculinity looks like when—and perhaps especially—you hurt people. I don’t want him to confuse doubling-down, refusing to admit error, or an inability to empathize with others with what it means to be a man. He’s not being raised as a wimpy pushover, either. We’re still Irish and I’ll leave it at that.
I told him that humility does not equal humiliation or loss, but he needs to see it in action because I could have cribbed that advice from a fortune cookie. An apology card may seem like a minor thing, but his mom appreciates handmade gifts and I’m completely hopeless in the crafts department. It would be easy for me to go to Hallmark or steal some sensitive-guy wisdom off the internet that makes me look I care when all I’m trying to do is extinguish a conflict or get away with acting like whatever the current version of Chad is.
My son is smart and his B.S. radar is remarkably fine-tuned for someone his age, so if I’m going to ask more of him, I have to ask more of myself. Watching his half-blind father who can’t cut in straight line and doesn’t know when he’s gone too far with the glue try to make a card from scratch not only provided an object lesson but a few hours of comedy gold.