U.S. News

02.28.13

Our Insincere, Pointless Cult of Apology

Sorry, but the endless apologies from hapless celebrities and witless pundits add up to a big zero. Michael Moynihan on our pointless cult of apology—and why we’ve hit bottom when even The Onion has to atone.

As best I can tell, everyone on the Internet is upset, their tender feelings inflamed by insensitive jokes, panting with exhaustion from the endless search for new outrages, demanding that people they don’t know offer them abject apologies for saying things they don’t like. This, it seems, is why the Internet exists—to remind us that different people who think different things are funny, that some people think nothing is funny, and others who get a perverse joy in watching well-known people, fearful their bank accounts will deflate, prostrate themselves before the public, expressing “disappointment” in their true selves.

So how does one achieve forgiveness from the permanently offended? Well, in the most extreme situations, there is always the shame-faced march to rehab (“It was the booze that inspired my Wagnarian fits of anti-Semitism, because such profanities don’t exist in my heart). There is, however, a much cheaper option: the ritualistic public apology. As public pressure mounts on the offender, threatening to damage their own “brand” or a company’s earnings, a carefully crafted apology is released into the wild, America’s wounds are salved, and the braying mob moves on to its next victim. Nothing has changed, of course, but nothing was meant to have changed. Ours is an age of moral grandstanding—in 140 characters.

A few weeks ago, disgraced journalist Jonah Lehrer—someone whose transgressions I am well equipped to judge, and whose apology I accepted, whatever that means—told a journalism conference that he was sorry for his “mistakes,” “errors,” “frailties,” “failures,” “weaknesses,” and “weak spots”—a rather nice way of saying “lies,” “deception,” and “plagiarism.” Lehrer, pleading like Peter Lorre trapped in a Berlin basement, said he couldn’t help himself, it was part of who he was, and he needed our help to avoid trespassing the boundaries of respectable journalism. He apologized without admitting too much; he was apologizing because he wanted back in.

But most of our quivering outrage is directed not at those who were clearly dishonest, but those who offend our sensibilities. As if Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony wasn’t hideous enough, the following day the Internet teemed with fist-shaking commentary on host Seth MacFarlane’s crude humor, first lady Michelle Obama’s cameo appearance, and a tweet from the satirical website The Onion calling 9-year-old actress Quvenzhané Wallis a “cunt.”

The outrage machine whirred, and it was determined by many that The Onion’s tweet was very much out of bounds, possibly imbued with racism. No evidence for that charge was required when a suspicion would suffice. Writing in Salon, a Hampshire College professor denounced the Onion’s “ironic racist misogyny,” because one can never be too offended.

This furious backlash to the Wallis tweet managed something once considered unthinkable: in the spirit of the times, The Onion apologized, writing that “no person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.” In short, that the tweet’s author would be “disciplined” for doing what The Onion—love it or hate it—has always done.

Another Salon writer complained that misogyny and racism “dominated” the performance of Oscar host Seth MacFarlane and his opening number, an unfunny confection called “We Saw Your Boobs,” “celebrates rape on film.” NJ.com polled readers on whether or not McFarlane should apologize (84 percent said no). A petition on Care2 (“the number one petition site in the world”) demanded an apology from the comedian because “his words have scorched the hearts and violated the peace of those who engage in a day to day uphill battle for human rights.” MacFarlane, human-rights abuser, said he wouldn’t host the Oscars again if asked, but hasn’t yet asked for America’s forgiveness.

MacFarlane, human-rights abuser, said he wouldn’t host the Oscars again if asked, but hasn’t yet asked for America’s forgiveness.

And he needn’t bother. After all, who would believe that a man made fabulously wealthy by selling politically incorrect humor would be awakened to his insensitivity by an army of bloggers? Or that his breathless accusers would believe him to be reformed? Or should even be surprised by his humor? Does anyone think New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who earlier this week defended wearing blackface to a Purim party (“political correctness to the absurd”), believed the following statement, issued only after the intercession of members of his own party? “I recognize now that the connotations of my Purim costume were deeply offensive to many. I am sincerely sorry that I have hurt anyone.” Or how about Fox News host Bob Beckel, who apologized last week for doubting that rape existed on college campuses, clarifying—a crisis PR euphemism that always manages the opposite—that he “simply was trying to make, there was not a distinction to make here, it simply was that date rape is rape. And that is, by any other definition, rape is rape.”

Such disavowals of one’s own beliefs are typically followed by the accused’s critics “accepting” an apology (as I did) with grace and magnanimity (as I tried to do), and concluding that it was now time to “move on.”

Lehrer’s calculated apology—a 45-minute mea culpa full of elisions and half-truths, which earned him a $20,000 speaking fee—failed miserably because he committed a real, quantifiable offense. No bruised feelings involved, no accusation of an -ism, and no conceivable way of salvaging the “brand.”

In response, the journalism profession spoke with a unified voice: we have moved on, without Jonah Lehrer. But all hope is not lost. He could always try rehab.