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Say You're Sorry

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" Commentary, 1/26/07

Back in 1971, J. Edgar Hoover gave an interview to Time magazine in which he said "You never have to bother about a president being shot by Puerto Ricans or Mexicans. They don't shoot very straight, but if they come at you with a knife, beware." When the remark came in for criticism, Hoover issued a testy explanation. His words had been misinterpreted and taken out of context, he said, adding that he had many Hispanic acquaintances and hadn't intended to cast aspersions on the law-abiding citizens of any ethnic group (by which he presumably meant the ones who weren't carrying weapons).

Needless to say, that explanation didn't entirely mollify Hoover's critics: one Hispanic politician called it a "non-apology." As best I can tell, that was the first time that word had ever appeared in print, and it was another 25 years before it became common in the media. The question is, why did it take so long to come up with a word for these things? After all, there's nothing new about non-apologies -- public figures over the centuries have always looked for ways to placate the demand for expressions of contrition without having to undergo the self-abasement that sincere apologies entail.

But then no age has ever made such a public spectacle of apologies as ours has. By the time Hoover made his remark, public figures were having to be mindful of heightened ethnic sensitivities and the media's increasing willingness to report the lapses of public figures. And the advent of Nokia, YouTube, and Oprah brought the theater of expiation into its full modern flower. Nowadays every public misstep is apt to be recorded and broadcast, with the offenders obliged to make a round of perp walks on the talk shows, some in an effort to rescue their careers, and others in the hope of reviving them.

It isn't a genre that rewards originality, and the performances all follow familiar scripts. Basically, we know everything there is to know about non-apologies by the time we're seven. You make appropriately contrite noises and then go on to point to extenuating circumstances, disclaim any malign intention, and minimize the offense. As in, "Okay, I apologize. But he started it. And I was only kidding. And anyway it was washable ink."

If you’re nailed for something you said, you can always claim to have been misinterpreted, the way Hoover did. After the "macaca" episode, Senator George Allen said: "I apologize to anyone who may have been offended by the misinterpretation of my remarks." Or you can express regret over the response to your words, the way Pope Benedict did after his remarks about Islam: "I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address which were considered offensive.''

That's the same strategy that was recently used by Charles Stimson, the Defense Department official in charge of the Guantanamo detainees. In a radio interview, Stimson had said that it was shocking that attorneys from top American law firms were representing accused terrorists, suggested that their corporate clients might want to withdraw their business, and intimated that they might be receiving payments from suspicious sources. After even the administration distanced itself from those remarks, Stimson apologized by saying: "Regrettably, my comments left the impression that I questioned the integrity of those engaged in the zealous defense of detainees." That's like calling somebody an idiot and then saying you're sorry if you left the impression you were impugning his intelligence. But it's a favorite formula for turning a moral transgression into a mere procedural slip-up -- not, "I said something unacceptable" but "I should have picked my words more carefully, what with how touchy everybody is these days."

Then there are the contigent nonapologies, the ones that come laced with if's, any's and may have's. Mel Gibson reached out to "those who had any heart wounds from something I may have said," as if his anti-semitic outburst were purely hypothetical. And back in 1992, when Senator Robert Packwood was accused of having sexually assaulted several dozen women, he responded with what has to be the most dubiously penitent nonapology ever offered: "I'm  apologizing for the conduct that it was alleged that I did."

It's true that a botched nonapology often compounds an offense by suggesting that the offender is morally clueless in the bargain. But apologies don't always have to be genuine to do their work. In a recent study, the Boston University researchers Richard Ely and Jean Berko Gleason found that the majority of young children's apologies were prompted by adults. It's a fair bet that 95 percent of those prompted apologies were insincere, and the rate is probably equally high for the apologies that public figures are obliged to offer for their transgressions.

But then, does anybody really care whether Pat Robertson was genuinely remorseful about suggesting that Hugo Chavez should be assassinated, or whether Charles Stimson felt a pang of conscience after attacking the lawyers representing the Guantanamo detainees? Sometimes, the more insincere and grudging a nonapology is, the better it makes the point: it doesn't matter whether you're really sorry -- if you say this kind of stuff, you're going to have to go out and take it back.

A friend was telling me the other day how she'd made her twelve-year old son call a girl in his class to apologize for something he'd said. When the girl came on the line he said "I'm sorry I called you fat," then hung up the phone. It was pretty clear his apology fell short of true contrition. But my guess is that everybody learned something anyway.

Copyright © 2007 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.