We live in the age of the non-apologetic apology. In public and private life, Americans have become accustomed to the debasing spectacle of meaningless, responsibility-shifting mea culpas, followed by pleas for unearned forgiveness, always omitting any mention of exactly what the miscreant intends to do to make amends to those who have been hurt.
You know the drill, whether the offense is a personal vice or public malfeasance. The first tipoff is the passive voice. “Mistakes were made,” says Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales. Mistakes were made by whom? He didn’t know what was going on in the Justice Department, but he accepts “complete and full responsibility.” Except for one tiny point: he doesn’t really think thet he did anything wrong. “I made mistakes” is what you say when you think that you are really responsible. And oh yes, Gonzales wants to keep his job.
In private life, the non-apologetic apology shifts the burden from the offender to the offended. A cheating spouse says, “I’m sorry you were hurt.” Translation: “If only you would stop making such a fuss and stop crying your eyes out, we could get back to normal.”
These sorts of apologies are indecent in any system of religious or secular ethics. They are pleas for what the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in Flossenburg concentration camp for his participation in the small but morally powerful Protestant anti-Nazi resistance movement, calls “cheap grace.” In his book Discipleship, Bonhoeffer describes cheap grace as “the justification of sin without the justifiction of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before…Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentence….”
For Bonhoeffer, of course, sin was an offense against God as well as man, and his concept of repentance and forgiveness is rooted in Christianity. But his idea applies with equal force to those of us who do not believe in God and whose concept of morality–and immorality–revolves entirely around the way we treat other human beings.
In 21st-century America, unearned forgiveness is the secular twin of cheap grace. They mean the same thing: the apologizer expects to be forgiven simply because he says that he’s sorry.
I am an ardent baseball fan and an overnight sports talk radio addict who often listens to WFAN, the former home radio station of Don Imus. During the past few weeks, many white callers to the sports talk show hosts at WFAN have expressed indignation that Imus was fired after he had apologized to the Rutgers female basketball players for applying a vile, racist, misogynist epithet to them. How could the networks be so unjust as to fire Imus after he had apologized and been “forgiven” by the Rutgers women?
The short answer, of course, is that the sponsors still considered Imus a liability. What interested me about the calls, though, was the assumption that because Imus had apologized, that made everything all right. In fact, Imus didn’t apologize at all until it dawned on him that his job was really in jeopardy. Even then, he kept making the excuse that his remarks had been made “within the context of humor.”
I think that Imus visited the Rutgers team and apologized, even after he had already been fired, because he is planning a comeback and knows that he’ll need an apology on record to make that possible at some future date. If the Rutgers women wanted to forgive Imus in order to move forward with their lives, that is their admirable business. But Imus didn’t do a thing to earn their forgiveness.
Another telltale mark of the non-apologetic apology is that it is often directed toward the wrong people. My grandmother, a great lady and a lifelong Democrat, made this point in a letter to President Bill Clinton in 1998–one of her last acts before she died at age ninety-nine. “Now I don’t approve of what you did,” she wrote, “but you don’t owe me an apology, and you don’t owe the public an apology. The only person you should be apologizing to is your wife.”
Last week’s prizewinner in the misdirected apology sweepstakes was the actor Alec Baldwin, who got caught on tape calling his 11-year-old daughter a “rude, thoughtless little pig” who lacked “brains or decency as a human being.” Baldwin issued an apology on (where else?) his personal Web site. “Although I have been told by numerous people not to worry too much, as all parents lose patients with their kids, I am most saddened that this was released to the media because of what it does to a child…I am sorry for what happened. But I am equally sorry that a court order was violated.”
Baldwin’s language is revealing–what “it” does to a child. How about what he did to his child? Baldwin ought to be on his knees to his daughter, and he ought to be seeing a therapist who, perhaps, can make him understand the impact of such words on a young girl when they come from her father. But he probably prefers the reassurances of sycophants who tell him that “all parents lose patience with their kids.” Yes, they do. But all parents don’t call their kids pigs.
A final mark of the non-apologetic apology is the statement, “It’s time to put this behind us.” Translation: I want to put this behind me. Again, this sort of weasel-like apology occurs in both public and private life.
I am not entirely sure why these disgusting non-apologies have metastasized in American culture in recent decade. Conservatives like to place the blame squarely on the downplaying of traditional concepts of sin in many liberal religious denominations, but I doubt that is the real reason. Many religious fundamentalists, who certainly have a well-developed sense of sin, seem as hell-bent in their search for cheap grace as anyone else in American society.
A case in point is the Reverend Ted Haggard, who, after being outed for having sex with a male prostitute and buying illegal drugs, checked into a Christian rehab center for three weeks and pronounced himself completely cured and “completely heterosexual.” (I should make it clear that I do not consider homosexuality a sin–in a religious or a secular sense–but Haggard surely does.) And he thinks he can put it behind him after only a few weeks of Christian rehab. I would assume that Christian rehab is like any other form of rehab–you get out of it only what you put into it. Is three weeks enough to redeem yourself? Not likely.
I do think that the American desire for shortcuts, fostered by media that publicize magic solutions for everything from obesity to “sex addiction,” has something to do with our penchant for morally meaningless apologies. Our mindless celebrity culture, in which crude and vulgar people are “forgiven” repeatedly by their fans, certainly provides an unending model of bad behavior. But I also think that celebrities are reflecting a culture in which Americans view forgiveness as a right rather than something that must be earned through true, long-term amends and repentance.
This epidemic of non-apologetic apologies, in what is supposedly one of the most religious nations on earth, does not speak well for religion as a force for ethical behavior.
For example, most of the high-level Roman Catholic Church officials responsible for trying to cover up molestation of children by priests–an egregious betrayal of their ecclesiastical as well as American civic responsibilities–have squirmed and evaded personal blame in the same fashion as their secular counterparts in government, business, and entertainment are accustomed to doing when caught in indecent situations. If these bishops and cardinals had been true to their own religious teachings as well as to universal ethical values, they would have tracked down every victim and met with him personally. Instead, most members of the responsible hierarchy hid behind lawyers. Mistakes were made….
All Americans need to think seriously about why we have developed such a responsibility-shifting culture. When JetBlue CEO David Neeleman appeared on television to apologize for the fiasco that left thousands of passengers stranded on airport runways in February–and followed up his apology with rebates to customers and a Passenger’s Bill of Rights–he was praised throughout the nation. Why? Because we are used to chief executives, from the President of the United States on down, who either refuse to admit mistakes or blame their mistakes on others.
Of course, a bad management decision by an airline does not belong in the same moral universe as beating one’s wife, emotionally abusing one’s child, or covering up sexual molestation by the clergy. But the ethical issues surrounding all apologies, amends, and the expectation of forgivenesss are remarkably similar.
Whether we are talking about pure evil or failures that fall more within the realm of ordinary human fallibility, no one merits forgiveness for simply saying, “I’m sorry.”
It may be true that to err is human and to forgive is divine, but we should not expect those we have hurt to behave as some imaginary divinity might. Americans need to start issuing mea culpas in deeds, not words.