Sorry Not Sorry

We know exactly how the secular ritual of televised apology is supposed to go, so why does it always seem to go wrong?

There is a rich American tradition of fallen cultural figures confessing on talk shows to receive salvation. To restore their images, they atone for their sins and beg for absolution from the host, who speaks for the people. This sacrificial ritual is central to our secular theology; whether for god or country, we shame and judge, perchance to forgive, our sinners in scripted morality tales.

Thus was Lance Armstrong pilloried in our virtual town square. The disgraced cyclist sat with Oprah, the infallible high priestess of our national church, to be rehabilitated by her divine grace. But Armstrong didn’t play by the rules; he apologized without submitting. This is just not done: we want icons to fall into abject ruin and then plead for redemption – to throw themselves on the mercy of the court so we may assess their bathetic supplication. The initial transgression that lets us show our generous clemency must, for this reason, be forgivable. But we cannot forgive the real transgression: the false confession or suspect apology.


A notorious recent non-apology illustrates this pattern. Summoned to the couch after his 2011 hookers’nblow blow-up Charlie Sheen also goes off-script. Refusing to play his part, he fully inhabits his excess, “owning” his narcissistic indulgence, even upping the ante. He baffles his inquisitors, intensifying their lust to repress him. One exemplary interview shows Sheen riding the tense line between assimilation and expulsion:

Sheen’s chirpy but steely-eyed interviewer leads off with: “Your anger and your hate is coming off as erratic.” But Sheen quickly corrects her: “My passion, my passion.” Wait, what? You're not confessing? She bears down: “When’s the last time you used?” she demands. Sheen scoffs, “I use a blender, I use a vacuum cleaner.” “You’re clean right now, and so is this better now, your life now, clean, with your children?” At least denounce drugs – tell the nation you prefer your children to drugs! Admit you are better sober, concede you were insane before: confess! “It's not about better,” Sheen calmly explains, “it's just different. It doesn’t compare, they’re different realities.” When he explicitly endorses his experiences with drugs and gives his reasons, she ignores him and vertiginously asks, “When you look back on the last time you used drugs, are you disgusted with yourself?” This is the non sequitur of the fundamentalist deafened by her cause. Sheen replies: “I’m proud of what I created, it was radical.”

So the script got cracked, shredded by an ad-libbing lunatic, the nation’s confessional desecrated. This is not to endorse Sheen; the domestic abuse is odious, the one-man show abysmal, the sitcom an idiotic self-parody. Rather, this interview is what happens when the role of the propitiator is miscast. Sheen’s recalcitrance exposes the spectacle of social repression, his psychosis explodes the charade, turns it inside out: he can be neither normalized nor dismissed. Sheen stalks a tenebrous boundary: he must feel the repressive-generative public desire bearing down on him, forcing on him the stark choice: insanity or clemency.

Hardly just some occasional, amusing pop-cultural publicity stunt benefiting captor and captive alike, this failed confession recapitulates the logic of the police station. One typical how-to textbook on criminal interrogation, echoing Sheen’s cross-examination, “describe[s] in vivid detail a nine-step procedure designed to overcome the resistance of reluctant suspects:

Using this procedure, the interrogator begins by confronting the suspect with his or her guilt  (Step 1): develops psychological “themes” that justify or excuse the crime (2); interrupts all  statements of denial (3); overcomes the suspect's factual, moral, and emotional objections to the charges (4); ensures that the increasingly  passive suspect does not tune out (5); shows sympathy and understanding and urges the suspect to tell the truth (6); offers the suspect a face-saving alternative explanation for his or her guilty action (7); gets the suspect to recount the details of the crime (8); and converts that statement into a full written confession (9).

The coerciveness of the process is transparent when someone rebels, as Sheen did. But it is more insidious and layered when someone like Lance Armstrong complies. His ambivalent, semi-deferent apology exposes the paradox of the public confession. The accusation, inquisition, confession, and pardon must be grave enough to raise and satisfy our demand for retribution, but vacuous enough to remain a ritualistic ethical performance. The sin must be offensive enough to call for real punishment – and not some measly admission – while the confession must be vapid enough to prevent critical resistance. Hence the symbolic process is perverse: it must be heavy enough to coerce but light enough to entertain. The absolution process has the discipline and tact to shield the brute venality of the interrogation – that is, to focus only on the sinner’s discrete violations. Oprah plays her part, but Lance cannot rise to the occasion, and hence risks exposing the entire charade.


The long-awaited/readily-forgot Oprah interview with Armstrong begins with the usual lies: “We agreed that there would be no holds barred, and that there would be no conditions on this interview, and that this would be an open field.” “I think that’s best for both of us,” he smiles. “So let’s start with questions that people around the world have been waiting for you to answer,” she says, launching a litany of “yes or no” “questions” to which we already know the answers. He is not there to “answer questions,” of course, but submit to charges – he is there to cry and be forgiven for betraying his child, and us. But he screws it up and commits the real transgression: a crappy confession.

Oprah’s pieties about propriety, responsibility, and rectitude seem to roll right off Armstrong. He thinks participating in the ritual is enough. And so, in the flash of a smirk across his face, we wonder if he will detonate the sham. He might turn the tables – “no holds barred,” “no conditions on this interview,” “an open field” – and ask how she came to adjudicate his crimes. Who will question Oprah, the billionaire who broadcasts poor people’s slobbering and screaming for her handouts, who christens the literature of our narcissistic culture of therapy while ignoring structural violence here and abroad and supporting without hint of protest a President who kills American and foreign citizens at will, hundreds of them children. All this sanctimony, solipsism, and fealty to state violence should have prepared us for Oprah’s solemn moralizing soliloquy in the Superbowl commercial for Jeep. In the ad, Oprah preaches that the nation is not whole when “the troops” are away, neatly distilling America's militarist, nationalist, and consumerist self-aggrandizement. No mention of the countless foreign civilians murdered by these troops or the political-economy that ensnares Americans in “voluntary” service to the war apparatus. All that matters is our patriotic losses…and, of course, Jeep, the company exploiting unspeakable trauma for profit. Will Oprah now give away Jeeps? Or perhaps veterans...?

But Lance won’t channel Sheen, he won’t confront the high priestess. His lame effort at rehabilitation has ignored the robust salience of sports in American culture. Many progressives lament this primacy of athletics as an opiate of the masses that depletes our analytical reserves or masks our homoerotic urges. But sports may represent a lost object of desire for willful heroism (the athlete) and juridical integrity (the umpire) in a society that experiences itself as cynical, corrupt, and cutthroat. Athleticism is an especially tender nerve for our collective experience of moral rectitude because its achievements are identified with a visibly virtuous ethos. In pointed contrast to actors or politicians, fallen athletes are uniquely difficult to resuscitate, since they fall from genuine heights.

With this in mind, the parody of the masculine sports figure’s cathartic cry in the film Jerry MacGuire is intriguing. When a sportscaster lists the awful things in the football star’s life, including his brother’s “tragic bass-fishing accident,” the athlete says, “I’m not gonna cry.” But then he does cry when told he is rich and can keep playing. When awarded an Oscar for this role, Cuba Gooding, Jr. emotionally erupted, strangely reprising the role from the film, not least thanking God “for what you put me through but I’m here and I’m happy.” The audience swelled to a standing ovation. So the actor who had evidently satirized the heart-of-gold athlete then re-enacted the performance but now without irony as a heart-of-gold actor.

This outburst was so servile and surreal that Spike Lee parodied it in Bamboozled
Suddenly Gooding then screamed, “Tom Cruise, I love you!” Here we come full circle, since Tom too has sat with Oprah. Unlike with Lance, though, on this occasion she mock-chastised her screeching, infantalized fans, “Y’all are gonna have to calm yourself or you won’t make it through the hour.” Oddly, Cruise is the leading figure of a cult condemned as coercive, thuggish, and delusional by the very society that swoons over him, with Oprah leading the way. The Cruise/Armstrong contrast suggests that an irremediable fall from grace is restricted to those whose fame is inseparable from their personal integrity. Reviewing Lawrence Wright’s new book on Scientology, Going Clear, Paul Constant anticipates that “close ties between the church and Cruise can’t help but alter your perception of the movie star”. Don’t hold your breath. In contrast to Oral Office Bill Clinton or the Thetan Thespian Tom Cruise, Lance Armstrong’s public-private life is integrated, not schizoid – when impeached only he is comprehensively discredited as a person.

The distinction derives from the provenance of success: athletes win when they train hard and compete fairly, obeying the rules. Their integrity directly constitutes their success and our awareness/endorsement of them/their person. But politicians and actors prevail by playing roles, by persuasively fabricating characters, so we can coherently applaud actors even if we know they are womanizers or Scientologists. Whereas athletic achievement unites performance and person, political and dramatic achievement separates them. If this is why Americans take sports so much more seriously than Washington or Hollywood, it follows that we take the confessions of athletes more seriously than the laughable foibles of the professionally masked. To shun a politician or actor we must condemn bad acting or horrid criminality; in this sense their “personal” integrity is trivial. But for the athlete cheating immediately discredits the performance we are celebrating. Maybe this explains the relative shrug over Sheen, until he rebelled against the coercive apology, compared to the Moral Disaster of Armstrong.

But the ultimate point is that no matter how deftly Lance had grasped and navigated the moral climate, it was nearly impossible to get it right. So here is the question: why, if everyone knows the purpose of these rituals, do they so often go wrong?


Thus far we have described society’s collective assertion and repression of transgressions. But this seemingly simple, organic process is fraught and unstable. As we have said, confessions paradoxically must be heavy and light, serious and frivolous, coercive and voluntary. But there is a further, related instability in how public prostration is received. If apology scenarios are schizoid, this may reflect ambivalent feelings of people watching the police or priestess lord over the accused with dubious authority. The “masses” are conflicted in their desires, as resistant to obviously abusive hypocrisy as seduced by fascistic morality tales. So the never-ending parade of tears renders, or finds, its viewers in a schizoid state.

On one hand, we seem to need the authentic apology, all that crying on the couch. Is this because the sinners are so sinful? The televised interrogation is the courtroom for elite offenses: Sheen and Lance casually admit violating drug laws that incarcerate poor people for life. If our fallen icons are let off so easy, the least they can do is sincerely repent first. Or do we demand good confessions as just payment for the benefits of the public apology? After all, not just anyone can meet Oprah or wear a crown of thorns in front of millions. This honor comes with a price – a hyper-adherence to collective morality. As Philip Rieff puts it: “Ultimately, it is the community that cures. The function of the classical therapist is to commit the patient to the symbol system of the community, as best he can and by whatever techniques are sanctioned.” Those who transcend are brought back to earth; all is made whole, including those of us who have been transcended: punishing the transcendent heals us.

But the cure seems wrong. Not only is there a human element - people who have gone through trauma are vulnerable and it is sadistic to bully them in front of millions – that leaves these episodes hollow, there is also our collective schizoid rebellion against our own morality. Indeed, what does it mean to be re-inducted into a church where Oprah is the high priestess? We glimpse, feel, or intuit that these public catechisms are not only drenched in violence but hypocrisy and internal incoherence.

Recently we watched Chuck Hagel, former Senator and current nominee to head the Defense Department, endure just such a sanguinary public apology. In the ideological terms of his apotropaic interrogation, his offense was to have spoken the truth. The entire “hearing” existed only to demand that Hagel non-sensically repudiate his positions. Crucially, it was not required that he contort himself, to explain how he could think contradictory things at once; he just had to deny previous beliefs. Meanwhile, the public had to work out what it meant that Hagel was being forced, by a Senatorial committee on Israel’s behalf, to deny the power of “pro-Israel” supporters in the Senate!

The conflicted public confession seems intended to stitch the ethical fragmentations no longer effectively policed by the state or corrected by communal disciplinarians. Related to John Thompson’s identification of the “mediated scandal” with overlapping modern communications and institutional complexity we suspect that the accusation-to-apology sequence is an improvised compensation for lost consensus or evolving norms. The consolidation of public ethics and codes occurs through the informal – if highly regulated – means of televised absolution. This process monitors and regiments those amorphous spaces between church and state, law and party, school and army, where a free-for-all of action, identity, desire, and value percolates. The confession contributes to what Gilles Deleuze calls “a new hybrid form of public and private [that] itself produces a repartition, a novel interlacing of interventions and withdrawals of the state.” The common agreements of this liminal public space are thin, inviting open contests like that between Sheen and his interviewer (or like the spectral battle we imagine between Lance and Oprah) – that is, not merely over private choices or public policies, but over claims to legitimate rule over the indistinct, evolving commons. Hence, the public apology invoking the rigid rules of old, relatively static control mechanisms, is also perceived by an audience simultaneously inhabiting a distinct but supportive reality. We believe that this space is structured by the proliferation of open secrets – truths which must be known but not spoken, that is, which we must know not to speak. In this case the open secret is that the ritual of the public apology is a charade. It is not disciplinary, bringing us back to the same place, but continually destabilizing: while the interview performs coercive regulation, its spectacle is absorbed by the viewers in the amorphous, unsure realm where that performance mostly falls flat.

For a version of this essay with academic citations, click here

In this nebulous terrain, the tears keep coming. One pharmakon – the notion of poison and cure existing in the same elixir – after another: after the priests and priestesses lead utterly inhumane rituals to direct the transgressor’s human frailty toward moral absolution, after the cynical apologizers cry on the couch rather than pine away in prison, we are left both sated and disgusted at what we have just consumed, as it has consumed us.