America has become home of the carefully nuanced, admitting nothing public apology. Brian Williams is the latest practitioner, but the Public Abject Apology has become a fixture of our cultural landscape. Perhaps too much of a fixture. The admittedly cynical impression is that you can get away with anything as long as you issue the appropriate plea for mercy. Mea culpas wipe the slate clean.
To a degree, this is as it should be. But only for true remorse followed by sincere apology and an immediate change in behavior. This is rarely the case. Most public apologies are scripted spin control with no intent of reform. Athletes, in particular, have evolved an extensive playbook of apology strategies, perhaps because they are delinquents whose apologies are written by the same team of handlers, all graduates of the same NFL school of obfuscation.
The first rule of a modern apology is to publicly be sorry everyone got bummed out. “I apologize if feelings were hurt (but not for what I did).” Acknowledge that mistakes were made while being mystified as to the source of those mistakes.
Avoiding personal responsibility is, of course, a key element of a modern apology. Under pressure in a recent Today Show interview, Brian Williams made sure to never use the L-word (as in ‘I lied’). It was not lying, he said, just a case of “my ego getting the better of me”.
Since you cannot be responsible for your misdeeds, there must be some other agency at work. This allows you to admit you are as surprised and upset as everyone else at your behavior. “I would not have chosen to make this mistake,” Williams said when he first hit the fan, as if we normally get to choose our mistakes. He “got it wrong”.
The most disturbing element of modern apologies is not the apology itself, but what follows close on its heels. A malefactor gives an apparently sincere apology and then immediately follows up with an “explanation” that totally negates the apology. An athlete, for example, apologizes for inexcusable behavior then explains it away by saying it is because he is passionate and competitive. No. He is not an incredibly intense competitor. He is an asshole. Plain and simple.
If you’ve done wrong, be a man about it (or put on your big girl panties, as appropriate), admit your error bluntly and then shut up. Everything you say after you say “I’m sorry” shows you are a liar. Take notes, Brian Williams.