The old bromide above, which I think came from the military (i.e., it’s the way you should behave when a superior calls you out), is the subject of an op-ed in May from Freddie deBoer, which you can read by clicking below. (Remember to subscribe if you read him often.)
DeBoer, like many who have a public presence and strong opinions, has had his share of online fracases over time. (I have had but a few.) One of his was a “Twitter freakout” about his book The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice. People trashed it before it was published, and even quoted pages that he never wrote. And he’s learned both personally and through observation to never issue an apology unless you mean it, and issue it to the people concerned, not to the world.
You probably know now that such apologies never “work”—if by “work” you mean “rehabilitate your reputation”. No, they only gives fodder to those who are out for your scalp. To such people, an apology is a tacit admission of guilt, and an excuse to ratchet up your animus, not quell it.
DeBoer gives several examples of the failure of public apologies. I hadn’t heard of most of them, and I’ll give just one.
I think of Lindsay Ellis, author and video essayist who was canceled for (this is true) comparing the shitty and quickly-forgotten animated Disney movie Raya and the Last Dragon to the animated series Avatar the Last Airbender. That is, genuinely, all she did, compared one piece of art to another piece of art that shares many similarities. This was bigoted, I’m told, because Raya and Avatar both have Asian characters and references to Asian cultures. In response to the criticism, Ellis published a two-hour YouTube video, two hours of the most abject groveling I can imagine. I find Ellis deeply annoying, but I still wince to see that video. Of course, you live by it, you die by it – woke prosecutors have a habit of becoming defendants, over a long enough timeframe. Did Ellis’s over-the-top apology work? Good lord, no. It only chummed the water. The people coming after her just wanted more. However much you apologize, it’s never enough.
These apologies, which remind me of Maoist “struggle sessions”, and are often that cringeworthy. I can’t think of even one that helped someone’s cause, although David Weigel’s apology for retweeting an offensive joke (see this morning’s post) may have saved his job. If you apologize because your employer demands it, even though you think you’ve done nothing wrong, well, you’ve lost a bit of your soul and self-respect.
But not everyone can afford to stand firm on their principles, though, as jobs may be hard to find and you may have mouths to feed. Someone who doesn’t have the possibility of being fired and whom I admire for her tenacity, her refusal to apologize, and, indeed, ability her to double down, is J. K. Rowling. Unfairly dubbed a “transphobe” for trying to discuss the rights of biological women versus transwomen, she never truckled to the mob. Indeed, she gave as good as she got. Hitchens, too, would never apologize for something he said sincerely. (I don’t know, in fact, if he ever apologized for anything!)
At any rate, Boer has some rules for apologies that I generally agree with, although there are some exceptions. (Readers will be able to think of others.) Here they be:
But it’s become abundantly clear that there simply is no value in public apology. Admitting fault only emboldens critics. The mechanisms of social media always reward escalation and never reward calm and restraint. Contemporary progressive politics excuse any amount of personal viciousness so long as the target is perceived to be guilty of committing some identity crime. The notion of proportionality is totally alien to these worlds, and when people ask for such proportionality they’re accused of supporting bigotry. People who are friendly online shamelessly wage backchannel campaigns against each other, and almost no one on social media has the stomach to stand up for someone else when the mob comes for them. Most importantly, the public can never grant you absolution for what you’ve done; absolution is not the public’s to grant. The strangers on Twitter can’t accept an apology, even if they ever would, and they wouldn’t. You can ask the mob for forgiveness, but they have no moral right to grant it, and anyway they never will. They’ll just keep you wriggling on the end of a pin forever. Honestly: how often do people who make public apologies come out ahead in doing so, especially because they’re so often coerced and thus insincere?
Apology itself is good. But public apology is a useless and self-defeating ritual. If you have done something wrong to another, I recommend that you privately apologize to them. That person can then accept your apology or not. They can publicize your apology or not. But all of the moral value of apologizing will be preserved, while nothing of practical value to your life will be lost. Look, if nothing else it’s indisputable that public apology has no consistent ability to reduce criticism, and I think it’s obvious that in fact such apologies just show that blood is in the water. You’ve heard it from me many times: there’s a profound nihilism in American life right now about the potential for positive change. So many people, of so many political stripes, have given up. And I think that plus the truly ruinous and sadistic influence of social networks and their reward systems have created this ever-seething mob that constantly casts around for its next scalp. We can’t get real change, but by god, we can make people cower! You can’t apologize to that. You shouldn’t negotiate with terrorists.
Now I’m assuming here along with Boer that yes, if you transgressed and hurt someone needlessly and thoughtlessly, you should apologize to them. You shouldn’t apologize if you didn’t do anything wrong—unless your livelihood depends on it. (And in the fiction book I just read, Coetzee’s Disgrace, the protagonist lost his job in academics rather than apologizing.) Otherwise, keep your yap shut, or, if you can afford it, double down, though I have no taste for social-media fights.
But there is an exception: if you’ve insulted a group of people, like an ethnic group, and you think you did wrong, and if you’ve erred in public, then a public apology is appropriate. This is simply because individual apologies simply can’t reach all the people you’ve hurt. You may get excoriated even more, but you’ve clung to your principles.
One reason deBoer is so hard on those who use apologies to bear down harder is because they violate one avowed principle of the Left: “restorative justice”. If you’re trying to make honest amends for having done wrong, you should be given a chance to do so, and people should exercise some empathy and understanding. Most of the time, though, they don’t.
As DeBoer notes, “It’s a bizarre little quirk of contemporary left politics – people simultaneously believe that many crimes shouldn’t be prosecuted and that we should always work to reintegrate even the worst offenders into society, but if you violate any of the arcane language norms of 21st-century liberalism, you can never be redeemed.”