The apology of the Salem jury, 1697
“Last night was a particularly long night as I regret the word I used in the banter of a live moment. The word was offensive and I regret saying it and am very sorry,” reads the statement Bill Maher issued after using a racist slur on television while in conversation with Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse. The public ritual of offense and contrition to which Maher’s apology belongs is now a familiar gesture of power’s operation in American life. As public apologies go, Maher’s was typical, if a bit lifeless, so Ice Cube was invited to the show to add the élan of truth being spoken to power. The optical illusion of accountability was then complete.
In his role as host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, Maher was tasked not only with apologizing for and thus preserving himself, but also the institutions that sustained and animated him—the network, whiteness, capitalism. The public apology as a form and gesture has become, primarily, a tool of image management designed to keep these powerful institutions smoothly functioning and profiting. The qualities of an effective public apology—acknowledgement of wrongs done, acceptance of responsibility, expression of regret—are now taught in business schools and consultants are often brought in to help powerful individuals (particularly those like Maher that function as agents of white supremacy, patriarchy, capital, and the State) calibrate their remorse and its expression, always with minimal investment and maximum benefit to the apologizer. Even when a public apology gives off the cool heat of consideration or the raw impression of true anguish, the apology’s function is primarily optical, serving to recast reality in a way more favorable to the injurious agent and, often, to control the range of the injured parties’ responses.
In the last twelve months, the glut of offenses necessitating apologies has ranged from Maher’s “house nigger” remark, to ex-Fox News CEO Roger Ailes’s sexual harassment of former anchor Gretchen Carlson (for which she received a “sorry” and settlement from parent company 21st Century Fox), to White House spokesman Sean Spicer’s ill-considered comparison of Bashar al-Assad and Hitler, which raised accusations of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. In response to these moments of offense and ensuing institutional damage, pundits chimed in with tips on how best to craft the ideal public apology. According to Michael Grynbaum of the New York Times, “projecting sincerity, humanity, and plain-spoken demeanor” is the best way to convince a cynical public.
The choice to deliver an apology usually involves intensive strategic forethought. Barbara Kellerman, reacting to the “apology culture” that has developed in the United States, writes in the Harvard Business Review that “[r]efusal to apologize can be smart or it can be suicidal” while “readiness to apologize can be seen as a sign of strong character or as a sign of weakness.” When maintaining power is the key concern, the method and manner of response to public outcry is developed based on these optics of strength, instead of real considerations of repair.
As a result of the public apology’s ubiquity, it has achieved a formal maturity that gives pundits and outlets like the SorryWatch blog—which “takes apart apologies of all sorts” in “the news, history, and culture” in order to champion “good” apologies and disparage bad ones—a standard by which to critique and assign value. For example, the blog cites a May 2016 paper from three management and human resources professors at Ohio State University in which fictional apologies were presented to 755 people. They found that the following elements make for the best received apologies: 1) Expression of Regret, 2) Explanation of What Went Wrong, 3) Acknowledgement of Responsibility, 4) Declaration of Repentance, 5) Offer of Repair, 6) Request for Forgiveness.
If we are wronged on an individual scale, an apology of this kind may very well be sufficient. But on an institutional scale—whether that institution is a celebrity’s brand or a national government—the situation of the apology becomes much more fraught. Just as difference determines differently, so too does injury, especially injury that carries the weight of historical oppression. Not every black person, it should go without saying, felt equally hurt by Maher’s remark or adequately satisfied by his response. Without an apology tailored to account for the different ways individuals experience injury, the public apology reduces and flattens them into a mass, speaking to them only in the most general terms.
Consider the United States Senate’s apology for slavery in 2009, crafted in part through consultations with the NAACP, which ends with the crucial disclaimer: “Nothing in this resolution (A) authorizes or supports any claim against the United States or (B) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.” When power and legitimacy are at stake, the apologizer finds it strategically wrong-minded to offer meaningful repair. The powerful, who are faced sometimes with calls to apologize for their power, re-center themselves at the most crucial moment of reconciliation. Confronted with grievances, the best response power offers is: “We will hold ourselves accountable.” Beyond that, the right of the aggrieved parties to demand repair is not recognized.
It is important to note that the public apology, codified and ritualized as it has become, is not a completely new feature of American life. The apology issued in 1697 by the Salem witch trial jurors contains some of the same rhetorical sleights of hand still used today. The jurors describe how they were “sadly deluded and mistaken, for which [they] are much disquieted and distressed” and “pray that God would not impute the guilt of it to [them]selves nor others.” Most public figures may not have recourse to Satan, but his rhetorical presence remains. Already, we can see how the public apology utilizes affect and seeks to control time and perception.
Centuries later, it seems we still have not developed more meaningful thinking about collective responsibility and accountability. This not only leads to the shallow culture of public apology, but also to a society where human acts occur for which no one is responsible. As with the murder of Philando Castile in Minnesota by officer Jeronimo Yanez, who was acquitted in June of all charges, homicides committed against black people by state agents seemingly occur in zones where humanity has just recently left. In the eyes of the state, a human being is not really killed, no one really is to blame. There is only the primary scene of order and the figures that enforce and threaten it.
Yanez, like most officers, cites his fear of being harmed as justification for his murderous response, even though Castile went beyond what the law required to account for and assuage this fear. The articulation of this fear is meant to appeal to the public’s fear of blackness, and the officer’s violence then becomes a reasonable method of reestablishing order and preserving the status quo, instead of the unjustified murder of one human being by another. Castile was killed not only by a state agent on behalf of the St. Anthony police department, but also on behalf of the institution of white supremacy that founded the police, the court where the killer was tried, and the culture where this murder is a familiar spectacle. Yanez committed the murder, but also acted as vector through which larger structures of power asserted their dominance.
The Castile family was issued a multimillion dollar settlement by the city, in part to prevent their filing a federal civil rights lawsuit, but there was no apology issued in regards to the shooting. This is unsurprising, considering that it was not until 2005 that the Senate issued a formal apology for lynching. It also shows that police shootings of black men in particular are injurious actions by the State that do not usually require the mannered public apologies that other actions receive. To apologize through language would be to recognize at the very least that a human being was involved, a being against whom it was possible to commit a moral wrong. The State and its institutions decided that, in this case, an apology was not politically expedient.
Philando Castile’s murder points to a lack of meaningful accountability in its extreme and most obvious manifestation. However, just as the public apology can act as kind of a discursive, moral currency that the state spends in order to preserve its image as essentially good and discourage escalation from those demanding accountability, the payment of settlement money—in the absence of a thorough accounting of the wrong and a meaningful effort to prevent future wrongs—shows how the state and other institutions try to buy the silence and acquiescence of those they harm in order to actively avoid the work of real repair.
When the State issues public apologies for anti-black racism and exploitation, the apologies are addressed to no one in particular or to a group so large (“African-Americans”) that the effect is essentially the same. If we take repair to mean not only actions to allay present hurt and distress but also to prevent their reoccurrence in the future, it’s clear from Castile’s death that the apologies may have made the State appear feeling, conscientious, and capable of reflection, but that their contrite gestures have done little to dismantle the racism that enables everyone from Bill Maher to Jeronimo Yanez to perpetrate its violence.
One problem, as Judith Butler works through in her ethical study Giving an Account of Oneself, is the fantasy of self-mastery. We expect others to “give an account”: to narrate themselves legibly and completely, especially when they have been accused of wrongdoing. But this narration inevitably breaks down since the self is not simply formed in its negotiations with bad conscience. Building on Emmanuel Levinas’s ideas, Butler describes the self as always already dependent upon and vulnerable to others and only conceivable through these ties. This is where ethics begins. But the public apology, which addresses a faceless sea of injured parties and seeks to shore itself up against the possibility of retaliation, of being wounded or made powerless, becomes unethical in its coercion and duplicity, in its drive toward self-preservation.
But it would be wrong to suggest that the public apology must simply be improved. We’ve already spent “centuries in sorry,” as the poet Layli Long Soldier writes in her collection Whereas, and it appears we might spend many more there unless we can think our way out of the empty, duplicitous language that stands in for ethical behavior and meaningful accountability in contemporary life. Citing a conversation with Faith Spotted Eagle, an activist and member of the Yankton Sioux tribe in South Dakota, Long Soldier describes the “freedom from denial” that speaking truthfully about traumas can bring to non-Native people, a feeling she differentiates from guilt and shame. To do that, it seems necessary to trouble the optics of power, to challenge the basic assumption that seeing is believing, that an apology repairs because it looks like it does. If the public apology is just another weapon in power’s world-making arsenal, we have to begin to deprioritize optics and image and explore new modes of feeling, thinking, and conceiving of collective responsibility that take us beyond the false assurances of punditry and human resource management.
Recently, artists and poets have begun to stage necessary interventions into these concepts to help us re-imagine what true repair might look like. Long Soldier in particular treats the United States’ congressional “Apology to Native Peoples,” which was quietly slipped into the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act, as a field for a personal and political consideration of history and relationality. In the “Resolutions” section of her poetry collection Whereas, she writes “in many Native languages, there is no word for “apologize…[t]his doesn’t mean that in Native communities where the word ‘apologize’ is not spoken, there aren’t definite actions for admitting and amending wrongdoing.” If we can no longer trust the language for apology as it is used to reify State power, white supremacy, and other oppressive forces in the public sphere, if we are in a situation in which the words “apologize” and “sorry” are issued in the service of power instead of repair, we can start to imagine new actions for admitting and amending wrongs that open up new spaces of being with one another, apologies that don’t happen in the moment of a carefully worded statement but in living mindfully with others, in the daily work of behaving responsibly toward those with whom we share the earth.
As the poet Harmony Holiday writes, “reparations begin in the body.” Which is not, as I understand it, to say that financial and other forms of restitution for violence and theft are not needed or appropriate. Instead, it is a call to think harder about what repair looks like, to pierce illusions and dismantle the theater of justice that has begun to look like an endless rally of apologetic call and response. “How did we manage to become so disembodied that we lost track of what life is?” she asks. How can we use “this cryptic and encrypted English language to liberate the spirit?” Even though the oppressive forces of the State, white supremacy, capital, and more seek to reduce and diminish their targets even as they claim repair, Holiday suggests a return to embodiment as the locus of reparative thought and action, to resist the urge to self-abstraction that power uses to flatten resistance. It is to say that public life doesn’t have to be so sorry so often, so managed and emptied of meaning.