How not to apologize

February 13, 2019 • 10:15 am

It would seem a no-brainer to say “I’m sorry” in a way that tells people—or lets them think!—that you’re sincere, but nobody seems to get it right these days. Last night, I heard the perpetrator of another blackface episode say, “I’m sorry that I offended people.”

Now that is not an apology, and it’s obvious why not. This person was sorry not for doing something racist, but for offending people. When I hear an apology like that, I think, “What this person is really sorry for is being caught.” An alternative interpretation is “I am sorry that you were offended, but maybe you shouldn’t have been.”

What really conveys sincerity is something like, “Yes, I behaved in a racist way. It was wrong, and I’m sorry for that. And I won’t do it again.”

Now of course many people who proffer “sincere” apologies, like the last one above, don’t really mean them. But humans being who we are, we’ll feel better hearing even insincere words that sound sincere. So be it. The ideal tactic, if you really have done something offensive, is to reflect on your behavior and, if you decide it was wrong, go tell the person/people you offended that you were wrong and that you’re sorry for what you did.  (Even if you feel that you were partly right, swallow your pride and just apologize for the sake of comity.)

I don’t understand why people don’t grasp that it’s not enough to say that you’re sorry that people were offended. That conveys the idea that you regret that they became offended, not that you regret making them offended.

I don’t want to dwell too much on Ilhan Omar, who tendered the apology below when called out by senior Democrats in the House for her anti-semitic tweets, but this is not the way to apologize:

It’s wrong for several reasons:

1.) It apologizes for offending people rather than for saying something anti-semitic. Does she think what she said was anti-semitic? I doubt it.

2.) She says her intention was not to be offensive. If not, what was it?

3.) She apologizes to a limited group of people: her constituents and Jewish Americans as a whole. Well, perhaps others, including Jews who weren’t Americans, were offended.

4.) She makes it about herself with the “I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity.” You don’t make excuses for saying what you said, or try to drag your own offense into an apology.

5.) The word “unequivocal” is defused by the fact that she equivocates in the rest of the apology.

6.) The stuff about the problematic nature of lobbyists completely ruins the apology, as it’s irrelevant and apparently is some sort of excuse for what she did. That again makes the apology “equivocal”, especially in view of Omar herself taking money from lobbyists. Why is it okay for her to take money from CAIR while others take money from NRA? (AIPAC does not give money to individual politicians, by the way)

A genuine apology—one without equivocation or excuses—goes a long way with other people. Just fricking say you were wrong and that you won’t behave that way again!  It isn’t rocket science!

51 thoughts on “How not to apologize

    1. What I get from “unequivocal” in her apology is an attempt a shortcut to all the possible nuances of apology, many of which our host mentions here. She wants to avoid all possible blowback. The equivalent of “I apologize in all the possible ways and to all offended groups”. Of course, that makes it insincere.

    2. So much for her apology. She’s apparently going to appear on stage with a well-known anti-Semitic Islamist. The only place I can find this is, so I don’t know if it’s unreliable info or the liberal media aren’t reporting it.

      I suspect it’s true. If she means her apology and really wants to change, I would hope she will pull out of the event.

  1. Now of course many people who proffer “sincere” apologies, like the last one above, don’t really mean them.

    As Groucho purportedly said, the key to success is the ability to feign sincerity.

    The master of the art in modern politics is Bill Clinton (though I can’t say I ever believed anything that came outta his mouth after he bit his bottom lip).

    1. “The master of the art in modern politics is Bill Clinton (though I can’t say I ever believed anything that came outta his mouth after he bit his bottom lip).”

      Don’t forget “The Great Communicator,” who charmed everyone but some patients in the aphasia ward at a hospital where Oliver Sacks worked — see “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” chapter 9, “The President’s Speech.” They weren’t fooled one bit by his words. Granted, Reagan gave an oral presentation, while Ilhan Omar’s words are written, and we’re not aphasics but we’re not fooled.

  2. I think it is safe to say she did not learn a damn thing. Other than maybe she should lay off the really disgusting stuff on line. Pelosi might see that and it could be another trip to the woodshed.

    As far as the guy in Virginia who likely assaulted two women – There will be no apologizing from that guy.

  3. Hear, hear!

    A Tory Brexiter tweeted that there was “No Marshall Plan for us only for Germany”. In fact, almost the opposite is true; the UK was the Plan’s major beneficiary.

    When challenged on live TV about it he used the weasel words “If I have caused any offence with that tweet I apologise.”

    No! We want him to admit his error and promise to maintain better standards in future.

  4. But isn’t the only thing wrong about “blackface” the fact that it causes offense? There is no inherent harm other than the offense it causes. Mimes put on whiteface and no one cares, so it is not wrong.

    1. Not really, there is also the act itself is simply racist. It is Jim crow. The fact of offense is simply an after affect.

        1. If you want to make up additional rules go ahead. The idea that you would put on blackface at home where only you knew is just a little strange. But go ahead and do that – nobody will care. There may be something else wrong with you besides racism.

            1. No, your point is, you don’t get it. What ever you do in the public eye is what it is. It is racist so your apology for offending anyone does not get it. You apology must be for being a racist. If you don’t get that then we are simply missing the point.

              You could have a garage full of swastikas. No one cares. But if you hang one on your front door and I come to the door…guess what. I will think you are a nazi. Don’t apologize to me if it offends me – that is stupid. Apologize for being a nazi.

              1. I think it’s sort of in between what both of you have been exploring. In other words, I do think that intents matter. For example, you could be completely ignorant that a swastika was an image that carried a whole history of harm to people because you’re from an eastern culture that is unaware of the symbol’s use in the west. Once you realize that people think that by using this symbol you were a nazi who celebrates the genocide of Jews and others, you could apologize that you are sorry that your use of the symbol caused offence and harm and that your intent was not to do so and now that you know it’s a symbol that carries painful meaning, you will no longer use it because you don’t want to upset a group of people. I think that’s an authentic and sincere apology that is a bit different from the original from the post and from what was discussed here.

                In other words, it’s equally about the intentions of the doer as it is the offended.

              2. If you had a garage full of Nazi memorabilia and didn’t display it but people knew what your garage contained, I say, people would care. If people didn’t know, the very fact is still an abomination in my estimation.

              3. Why? Maybe the person is a collector. Not all collectors exhibit their collections. It is whether one acts like a Nazi or espouses a Nazi philosophy that determines whether one is a Nazi, not whether they have a fetish for Nazi memorabilia.

        2. Not necessarily, I had a friend (born well after WWII) who collected Nazi memorabilia, he had, and cherished, his “Gott mit Uns’ buckle, a white wooden chair with the winged swastika, helmets, flags, iron crosses, caps, daggers, teacups, a Schmeisser even, and a lot more.
          Yet, politically he was kinda left wing, definitely no nazi sympathies at all.
          When I asked him why he collected these things, he answered in the vein of “it was such a short period in history, so incredible, surrealistic, and now I can touch it, it really did exist, it really happened, it dominated the world for just about a decade, it was Wahnsinn!”.

          1. You and Diane are doing the same thing as before. You are adding extra or exceptional ideas to the basic question which makes it something else entirely. Sure you could have some guy who collects this stuff. But again I ask….Does he put a swastika on his front door for everyone to see. I don’t think so. It is like collecting confederate flags. If that is what you do, okay. However, hang one on the front porch and what does that say?

          2. I didn’t see your comment until I’d written my comment above re Nazi memorabilia. I cannot speak to your friend’s collection or his motives, but when I was young, I had a friend who collected Nazi memorabilia, and I finally had to withdraw from his company. He was a very conflicted person, his father was a German American and his mother a Hungarian Jew – he was born during WWII.

      1. PS Jim Crow is a set of laws discriminating against blacks, which is racist. It got its name from the minstrel shows, but it is different. It caused actual harm, not offense.

        1. Jim Crow was a set of policies, practices, and customs that enforced racial segregation. Only a fraction of it was actually encoded in positive laws like statutes and ordinances.

          Such statutes and ordinances were unconstitutional on their face under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. But the customs and practices were immune from the US constitution’s reach because they depended on the acts of private citizens, not official “state action,” for their enforcement. That’s why it took separate acts of congress — the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 — to break Jim Crow’s stranglehold on the American South.

            1. It does. But, at least since 1964, private discrimination at places of “public accommodation” has been prohibited by federal law.

              Unfortunately, some people of little historical understanding would like to roll back those anti-discrimination laws.

      2. “Not really, there is also the act itself [blackface] is simply racist.”

        Nonsense. You’re saying that every actor who ever portrayed a different nationality was being racist? Or every soldier who ever ‘blacked up’ their face for a night operation?


    2. That’s brilliant! Why has nobody every complained about mimes? And why is it that Marcel Marceau never tweeted an “unequivocal apology”? Come to think of it, are mimes allowed to tweet?

      1. Mimes are offensive simply for being mimes. They should apologize for not talking, for pretending to be inside an invisible box, for pretending to pull themselves along using an invisible rope, etc. whether or not they painted their faces white.
        I am against discrimination of most kinds, but I am for discrimination against mimes. Their presence is offensive.
        I have no intention of apologizing for this comment. Mimes are icky.

    3. It is still an interesting question. My take on it right now is that if you do something offensive when no one is around to see it, then no one else is offended. But it is still offensive and it reflects on you accordingly.
      Sort of like if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it. My take on that is that it still makes a sound, and the tree is now lieing on the ground.

      1. How can it be ‘offensive’ if no-one is there to be offended?

        Surely context is everything.

        If I fart loudly in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, how is that offensive? It would be if I did it in a lift.

        Context is everything.

        (It’s *not* like a tree falling in a forest. The sound – vibrations – is there whether anyone hears it or not. But ‘offence’ is entirely context-dependent.)


  5. “I was wrong to base support for Israel on the basis of either money or hypnosis. I need to visit Israel and even visit with a number of Israel supporters, including AIPAC members, to better understand their positions and motivations. I am sorry and I will work to be better.”

    Fixed it for her.

      1. Because they’re a Jewish pro-Israel organization, pure and simple. They’re not even like CAIR in that APAIC does not give money to individual candidates, so there can’t even be a suspicion of quid pro quo for that. Nevertheless, they’re Jewish. . . .

        1. From what I understand they are a lobby group (a relatively small one at that) who encourage their membership to donate money to political candidates. The point is they have to follow the rules like every other lobby group. It seems very weird, if the politicians are not being antisemitic, then why would they complain about APAIC?
          I saw this tweet from Jill Stein:
          “Criticizing AIPAC is not anti-Semitic.
          Criticizing the Israeli government is not anti-Semitic. American Jews know as well as anyone else that this is a disingenuous smear tactic to silence anyone who supports peace with justice in Israel and Palestine.”
          Should she not know better?

      1. I think a lot of people agree that’s cynical race baiting.

        Anyone can call anyone else a “trafficker in hate”, presumably for policies or statements they disagree with. Without specific allegations it’s a mendacious smear. But a smear repeated often enough that plenty of people are willing to believe it in this case.

  6. Ahem, “Diana”. I don’t think i was adding so much as trying to explore what makes a good, sincere apology. You can’t really just make it a black and white thing. My example was merely to illustrate that the person who caused offence and the person who took it are part of a conversation and each has to participate.

    1. Sorry I spelled the name wrong. It was nothing against you I just do a very bad job on spelling.

      The exact thing that I, and I think the post was attempting to say is that apologies for offending are not the way to do do it. Instead you apologize for being what you are – such as a racist, or a Nazi. If you move the goal post in the example so far that it becomes a different idea, then we just as well start over. If the person were ignorant of swastikas being associated with Nazi then we are no longer able to use this as an example for the purpose intended.

      1. No apology required. It’s just funny for Dian G and I as people mix us up sometimes.

        I think all I’m trying to say is there is a difference between “I’m sorry you’re offended” and “I’m sorry I offended you”.

  7. I would imagine her comments were meant to show group membership with those who push Israel and the Israeli lobby as an oppressor and threat to human dignity. The immoral contents seem in line with that anyway- because until the political left stops seeing Israel as the Middle East oppressor, these kind of beliefs will remain and the quill be a need to pander to those beliefs by politicians.

  8. “It apologizes for offending people rather than for saying something anti-semitic. Does she think what she said was anti-semitic? I doubt it.”

    Well, if she doesn’t think it was anti-semitic, why would she need to apologise for it? In that case, from her point of view, her only offence is in wording it badly so people misinterpreted her meaning.


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