“Never apologize, never explain”

June 10, 2022 • 12:15 pm

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 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.”

23 thoughts on ““Never apologize, never explain”

  1. “, “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.” Beside being an exemplary voice of reason, Mr. DeBoer is a dynamite writer.

  2. It’s my opinion that you only apologize to those you wronged, you only apologize if it is due to a direct action on ones part, and you only apologize if you can take some action to repair the situation that warranted the apology.

    There are some interesting parallels between performative public apologies and the Christian notion that you can commit the most egregious and vile offences against others and a simple apology to the Christian god is enough to obtain forgiveness.

  3. (I don’t know, in fact, if he [Hitchens] ever apologized for anything!)

    Hitch would apologize for factual errors. I heard him do it live, in-person during his book tour for God Is Not Great. He had come to Miami to debate clergy persons from four religions (like a chess grandmaster come to town to play boards simultaneously against four regionally ranked players). Hitch apologized to the rabbi amongst them for some misstatement he had made regarding a custom related to the marital bed on the wedding night of Orthodox couples.

    I suppose his apologies were sufficiently rare that I recall this one specifically.

  4. Good lord, no. It only chummed the water. The people coming after her just wanted more. However much you apologize, it’s never enough. This, very sadly.

  5. The “never apologize” subject aside, deBoer’s credibility takes a hit here:

    In response to the criticism, Ellis published a two-hour YouTube video, two hours of the most abject groveling I can imagine.

    I enjoy a good train wreck as much as anyone, so I clicked on the link to see some abject groveling and…nothing. Not only is the video 100 minutes, not 2 hours, it is an excellent takedown of cancel culture and Twitter’s outrage brigade, not an apology video*. DeBoer has either never watched this video or is deliberately mischaracterizing it.

    It’s a good video, and I recommend it. This is a particularly good segment: https://youtu.be/C7aWz8q_IM4?t=5157

    *There is a section of the video where she admits to some valid criticism, and another where she goes through a list of old tweets that were dredged up by the outrage brigade and admits she was wrong on a few of them. Nothing I would label as abject, let along groveling.

    1. I’m subbed to many “BreadTubers” including Ellis, and can report nothing whatsoever is an “excellent takedown” of cancel culture from these parts. It‘s always waffling designed to say nothing at all, lit in purple and pink.

      They are, after all, ardent advocates of social media harssment and threats, and losing one’s job consequences. Ellis herself is a good example of someone who is a part of Club Cancel Culture. DeBoer is correct: she and others (e.g. ContraPoints) are all seen as “hoisted with their own petard”, “got to taste their own medicine” type of characters, who cannot plausibly comment on these matters anymore without a throughout “I was wrong” statement, because it looks so pathetic and self-serving now.

  6. As is often the case with articles such as deBoer’s, I think one takeaway should be to delete Twitter. Don’t even look at it. It’s not representative of public opinion. It’s often dominated by obsessives.

    Incidentally, I consider by Ellis’ comparison inapt only because Avatar: The Last Airbender may be the greatest animated adventure ever made (seriously), while Maya is just fair to middling.

  7. It’s worth noting that Ellis blames her cancellation solely on right wing agitators, and after the blowback from the non-apology video subsided she promptly cancelled herself because people stopped caring. Self-reflection was not an option to her at any point, it seems.

  8. I’ll read this later tonight. I’ve read a few things from Freddit DeB. and agree with quite a bit of what he says and he’s a better than decent writer. I might subscribe to his substack.

  9. Should the US apologize to the Iranian people for engineering the replacement of their duly elected president with the Shah, during the Eisenhower administration?
    Should the US apologize to African Americans and native Americans for their horrid treatment?

    1. No, no, and no.
      For the simple reason that this type of apology, once made, is never accepted as the end of the matter. It is always regarded by the querimonious classes as merely a down payment on a much larger prize which the apologizer has thus indicated is now on the table, the eventual granting of which could be contrary to the public interest. Sovereigns must never apologize for past actions.

      And I’m not even American.

  10. Any self-defense against accusations can be treated as an admission of guilt. It is therefore important for the accused that someone else defends him.

    If you are called a racist and your response is “I’m not”, you have just conceded that everyone can smear you as racist without consequences.

  11. “Never apologize, never explain” is hardly a motto to conduct one’s life by. An apology is always correct IF you were in the wrong, which is entirely different from the idea that one might apologize just because someone else disagrees with you. That is unproductive, undignified and encourages those whom you believe to be in the wrong. Don’t do that.
    The formulation I prefer, which seems to be trotted out a lot lately in regards to the House of Windsor, is “Never complain, never explain”. As the exact antithesis of what social media encourages people to do, it is a valuable and noble principle to live by.

  12. “Girl, Stop Apologizing” was a popular women’s self-help book a few years ago, pushing the idea that people should not feel shame. I haven’t read it, so take this with a grain of salt. There are times when it is absolutely necessary to apologize. People who act with no sense of shame or needing to apologize seem to fit our current working model of sociopathy. Social interaction is not just about doing what you want all the time, and staying exclusively in your comfort zone. (And yes, I say this as a libertarian with a conscience.) Apologizing helps us learn from our mistakes and get closure. Unfortunately, there are also far too many meaningless apologies. When a website has a script return a message to me saying ‘sorry’, should I really expect that there is an algorithm somewhere inside the machine programmed to feel sorrow?


    1. Hi Linquist, This is off the subject. U identify as a Libertarian. When I look at Libertarianism, it is hard to pin down. Which positions do U embrace and which not?

      1. Timothy, I’m pretty close to the standard definition, but recognize that there are some gaps in the philosophy. I’d rather not discuss it in a point-by-point basis on our host’s platform. We all have our differences here. The excesses of the New Right and the New Left have definitely helped me feel more secure in my position. Best,

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