[This is taken from a longer essay on apologies that I’ve been working on, and trying to submit for publication. It’s about “the apology” and this section is called “Equivocations.” It’s a catalog of public apologies I collected in 2011.]
Certainly, a public apology is nothing new. And while I can’t claim to have quantifiable data to support my claim, it feels like the rapidity, hyperbole and interminable nature of these apologies has never proceeded with more momentum. Just consider some of the broader categories of apology over the course of the last year or so.
Public officials and company men arguably issued some of the most shameless apologies of 2011, either for criminal deeds, ethical violations or flagrantly unprofessional acts. Rupert Murdoch apologized because his journalists tapped phones, and sought to “make amends for the damage…caused.” The ex-governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich reluctantly apologized for trying to sell President Obama’s vacated Senate seat, finally asking a federal judge for mercy at the conclusion of his court trial. Finance executive and former New Jersey governor Jon Corzine apologized for losing $1.2 billion dollars of his investors’ savings at MF Global. As he outrageously put it to a Congressional committee, “I simply do not know where the money is, or why the accounts have not been reconciled to date.” These are a few of your classic apologies for those things that clearly should not have transpired or been allowed to happen under anyone’s watch. And then we watch these people recount their inner panic, as they second guess the certainty of past decisions. Here, we may also add the University of California at Davis’ Chancellor, Linda P. B. Katehi, apologizing for an overzealous campus policemen who blasted her own nonviolently protesting students with pepper spray. “I feel horrible for what happened,” said the Chancellor.
Other publicly elected officials acted unelectable, and then insured panicked apologies by attempting to conceal their acts for some length of time. As their cover-ups persisted, the explosiveness of the misdeeds and the absurdities of the apologies rose to new heights. Arnold Schwarzenegger apologized for having a bastard son with his former maid. “After leaving the governor’s office I told my wife about this event, which occurred over a decade ago,” he told the Los Angeles Times. New York Congressman Anthony Weiner apologized for trying to send photos of his wiener to a woman he met on the Internet, but accidentally posted the images on Twitter instead. He then tried to cover up the whole incident, claiming hackers infiltrated his account. In his public press conference, he explained, “Once I realized I had posted it to Twitter, I panicked, I took it down, and said that I had been hacked. I then continued with that story to stick to that story, which was a hugely regrettable mistake.” Simply a cringeworthy series of events.
Politically incorrect miscues continually grabbed our attention, especially when public figures suggested causal explanations or theoretical associations considered unacceptable. The singer Tony Bennet apologized for blaming America for the 9/11 attacks: we pissed off the terrorists, then the terrorists came after us. Feeling the sting of others accusing him of a lack of patriotism, he defended himself, stating, “Nobody loves America more than I do.” Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul apologized for a newsletter he was associated with back in the 1980s that expressed racist and anti-gay messages. Without irony, he had a spokesman explain that, “there were multiple ghost writers involved and [Ron Paul] does not know who penned the particular offensive sections.” These might be categorized as apologies for inappropriate conspiracy theorizing.
Companies and brands regretted their errors, making clear that even organizations can feel the panic of a blunder. Microsoft regretted telling people to buy Amy Winehouse music tracks from their website immediately after she died. The company apologized, “if our earlier Amy Winehouse ‘download’ tweet seemed purely commercially motivated.” Partially commercially motivated, okay, but not purely. Netflix apologized for hiking its monthly rates, changing the name of its mail-delivery service to “Qwikster” and then changing it back to Netflix. The CEO of the company wrote long letters in which he continually struggled to “try to explain how this happened.” Thousands of subscribers didn’t seem to care much about the explanation and quit the service anyway, no matter the name of it. These are big organizations and recognizable, but not terribly beloved brands, so it’s no wonder that these apologies did not generate a high degree of lasting outrage. Yet it’s interesting to learn the amount of second- and third-guessing that goes into any of their strategic decisions.
Though not what it used to be, there’s something about airline travel today that apparently still requires a certain decorum. And while breaching that polite veneer of safety, efficiency and courteousness often now requires apology, it truly requires a fiasco to induce an authentic one. Actor Alec Baldwin artfully apologized for getting kicked off an airplane for refusing to shut his cell phone down after the aircraft’s doors were closed. But his public statement on The Huffington Post only apologized to fellow passengers for the inconvenience. Baldwin refused to apologize to the airlines, and instead sent them up for mockery. Appearing on a Saturday Night Live skit dressed up like an American Airlines pilot, Baldwin promptly apologized to himself for treating an “American treasure” with such impropriety. Meanwhile, actor Gerard Depardieu apologized for peeing in the aisle of an airplane while drunk. Not to be outdone, an 18-year-old US Olympic ski team hopeful named Robert Vietze was accused of drunkenly peeing on a sleeping 11-year-old girl’s leg in flight, and then caused an uproar for his refusal to apologize. A Facebook page was even created to demand his apology. File these under “regrettable behaviors, airplane.”
Offensive remarks about gay people call for immediate apology nowadays, as do many other affronts to formerly discriminated groups who have since found empowerment. The panic induced here is often of the, “I was out of control” or “I was out of line” variety. Kobe Bryant apologized for calling a referee a gay slur during a basketball game. No one actually heard him, but an entire television audience could read his lips. Comedian Tracy Morgan apologized for quite vocally saying he would kill his son if he was gay, apparently a standup comedy routine gone wrong. Kelly Osbourne also apologized to this community. She called the individual with whom her ex-fiance had an affair a “tranny.” Of course, despite her inner turmoil, Osbourne felt inclined to add that her words were taken out of context. Caught up in emotional moments, these figures unfortunately and irresponsibly surrendered to some timeworn targets of derision.
When offending an entire class of people, where does one turn for apology? Interestingly, both Bryant and Morgan directed their apologies to the Human Rights Campaign, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender human rights organization. And it now seems to have become part of the Human Rights Campaign’s strategy to exact apologies from public figures, along with other identity-based rights organizations. The pointedness of these apologies also reminds me a bit of a 2010 apology by then White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel who called fellow liberal activists “retarded.” At first, Emanuel attempted to address his apology to the Special Olympics, but an official at the Special Olympics refused to accept that apology, stating that the organization’s chairman, “can’t do that. He can’t accept an apology on behalf of all people with disabilities.” Later, upon meeting with six disability advocates, the apology was finally recognized. We might be tempted to file these apologies simply under the politically incorrect bucket, but nowadays they really belong in the more complex and evolving category of “inappropriate classificatory interjections, historically discriminated groups.”
And building on that complex and evolving category of apology, Hitler is apparently more relevant than ever. The Hitler apology seems particularly popular and almost strangely ubiquitous nowadays. Movie director Lars Von Trier apologized for saying he could relate to Hitler (“What can I say? I understand Hitler”). Fashion designer John Galliano apologized for saying “I love Hitler.” Country and western musician Hank Williams Jr. apologized for saying that President Obama was like Hitler (though qualifying his apology by stating that he has, “always respected the office of the president”). And chef Mario Batali apologized for saying Wall Street bankers are like “Stalin or Hitler and the evil guys.” In his retraction, Batali explained, “It was never my intention to equate our banking industry with Hitler and Stalin, two of the most evil, brutal dictators in modern history.” Thanks for that historical clarification, Mario. For the most part, these incidents can be categorized as a failure to widen the purview of one’s metaphoric battery. It seems that, for lack of more creative reference, people just parade out Hitler to demean people they don’t like. Nazi references, in general, are ill-advised, as one British MP learned when he had to apologize for dressing up as an SS officer to a stag party. Whether these Hitler apologies are addressed to Jewish people in particular, Western civilization more generally or perhaps even the entirety of humanity is a bit unclear. Everyone still unanimously finds Hitler offensive, and this actually makes a Hitler reference both potent and potentially shameful.