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Sorry Seems to Be the Easiest Word

What's the point of public apologies?

Any toddler knows how to feign just enough contrition to get out of trouble. Theoretically, what they are demonstrating are “manners,” but if you have ever heard a three-year-old mutter an unfeeling, transactional “sorry” as an automatic, easy get-out-of-timeout card, it is hard not to think he is a sociopath.

Are adult apologies any better? There exists a whole category of mea culpas—the public apology—that seem to transmit remorse not for the transgression itself but mostly at having been caught. Last week, Paula Deen submitted herself to one such scripted apology. After she admitted in a court deposition to sometimes using the n-word (among other racist things), her staff uploaded a heavily edited video in which a somewhat confused-seeming Deen opened by saying “I want to apologize to EVERYBODY, for the wrong that I’ve done. Uh …” and then a long pause. There was then a second, more composed version of the apology video uploaded. Next, she skipped a planned appearance on The Today Show, an exceptionally well-lit confessional booth for celebrities who have committed a PR blunder. Deen uploaded another apology video. “I’m Paula Deen, and I’m here to issue an apology to Matt Lauer. … Matt, I’m so sorry, I was physically in no shape to come in and talk with you. The last 48 hours have been very, very hard, and, you know, I’m a strong woman, but today I wasn’t.” She is scheduled to appear on the Today Show on Wednesday. The word “sorry” will no doubt be applied more liberally than butter in one of Deen’s dishes. 

Do public sins necessarily demand public apologies? Or is it that people who live their lives in public only realize something they said or did is wrong when the negative stories or tweets come streaming in? Tuesday, for instance, journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin apologized for suggesting that Glenn Greenwald should have been “almost” arrested for publishing a leak from Edward Snowden. “I put my foot in my mouth, and I’m sorry about this, when I veered into hyperbole and suggested that he almost be arrested—that was the quote—and I have to say it didn’t come out right and I misspoke,” he said on CNBC, "I’m sorry I said it that way, and I’m sorry I said it … I didn’t realize the way I said it until later when I saw the clip.” It makes one wonder if Sorkin called up Greenwald directly to offer a personal apology, or if it was mostly for the benefit of viewers at home. Serena Williams at least, apologized personally after she came under fire last week for an interview in which she implied that a rape victim in Steubenville, Ohio, could perhaps have made different choices on the evening in question. But she, too, made a show of the apology. When the remarks generated controversy, she issued a statement that some commentators noted wasn’t, precisely, an apology, but more of an explanation and an accusation of misrepresentation. “I am currently reaching out to the girl’s family to let her know that I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article. What was written—what I supposedly said—is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame.” Subsequently, she told reporters that she had apologized to both the Steubenville victim, and Maria Sharapova, whom she’d trash-talked a bit in the same article.

It is a predictable cycle—sin, statement, sorry (or at least “sorry”). Politicians who philander, sports stars who issue gay slurs in the heat of the game, actresses who drive drunk—all have to say the magic word before we let ourselves love them again. Or not—Deen’s apparently got more than a few fans standing by her. Occasionally, as in the case of John Galliano, whose fashion career was derailed by a series of anti-Semitic remarks, it takes a village to complete the apology process, as demonstrated in a somewhat appalling Vanity Fair article that sought to thoroughly excuse Galliano and lay the groundwork for his comeback.  (“It’s the worst thing I have said in my life, but I didn’t mean it,” he told the reporter. “I have been trying to find out why that anger was directed at this race. I now realize I was so fucking angry and so discontent with myself that I just said the most spiteful thing I could.”)

It is true that the elongated news cycle the public apology brings about might make the consequences worse for celebrities who’ve made mistakes, and that the attendant bad press can function as penance, a “say 12 Hail Marys and a rosary” for the limelight set. (Deen, for instance, has lost her Food Network contract.) All of which puts the public playing the role of hopefully forgiving God, which, though celebrities might think their relationship with the hoi polloi is in fact the reverse, isn’t a bad way of thinking about the universe of fame. But the automation of the apology process—the easy script for saying “I take it back!,” the formulaic way in which everyone pledges that this is a learning process for them—reminds me of nothing so much as those toddlers learning manners. Or maybe it’s simply the speed: I’d perhaps believe that Deen had learned something if the apology came after six months, not as quick damage control. In many of these cases, what everyone’s gotten so worked up about is the power of words to do harm. If “sorry” becomes an empty one, where does that put us?