What makes for an acceptable public apology?

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Joe Wilson, Serena Williams, and Kanye West — from the trifecta of politics, sports, and entertainment — have all suffered lately for their public outbursts, then attempted to soothe over the ire they kicked up by apologizing for what they’d done. These expressions of regret ran the gamut from genuine to lukewarm.


“I’m just ashamed that [I] caused someone else’s hurt,” West told Jay Leno. “I don’t try to justify it because I was just in the wrong.”

Williams’ contrition sounded like apologia. “I’m a very prideful person and I’m a very intense person and a very emotional person,” she said, her sister Venus standing beside her.

Wilson’s apology, however genuinely scripted, still seemed, well, scripted. “While I disagree with the President’s statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the President for this lack of civility.”

Meanwhile, on Thursday night’s “Late Show,” David Letterman unwound the story of his having been extorted for being sexually involved with a number of the women on the staff of his show. Using few notes, Letterman the monologist came nowhere near apologizing for his part, instead parceling hamfisted jokes to a clap-happy audience that didn’t quite know what to do with the news he had to give them. Surreal task finished, he closed the subject.

In the rite of “The Reconciliation of a Penitent” in the Book of Common Prayer, clergy are instructed to look for the confession of all “serious sins troubling the conscience” and “evidence of due contrition.” But they only look for these things after someone has come to them seeking reconciliation and restoration. I’m not sure about you, but my office is not overrun with penitents.

What do you think? To what extent, if any, has the now-ubiquitous televised apology wrung the power out of real personal contrition? If a known person can do it half-heartedly according to a known format and then not have to pay the price, why can’t I do the same thing? Or, worse, if a celebrity won’t, why should I have to?

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4 Responses to "What makes for an acceptable public apology?"
  1. While contrition is nice (and probably appropriate) isn't there something about "don't do the crime unless you can do the time". Too trite? Well, how about there needs to be penance along with contrition. Justice, mercy and repentance all require it.

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  2. I note with interest (well, a smidgen of interest) that CBS has, "for copyright reasons," pulled the YouTube clip of Letterman's account of the attempt to blackmail him. (Darn! We turned the TV off and went to sleep Thursday night right at the commercial break before Letterman's announcement!)

    What nobody seems to want to talk about is the evident fact that what Letterman admits to is the sexual exploitation of employees, beyond the issue of betraying any existing domestic relationships. Whether these encounters may have been consensual is not the point: there was a power imbalance between employer and employee. (The vulgar expression is, "Don't screw the help.")

    Fred is right: penance is appropriate. Facing up to the full nature of the offense might be part of that. (So might be leaving the clip on YouTube.)

    I don't recall that anyone ever really tackled the exploitation issue regarding President Clinton and his intern. It was sidetracked by the charge of perjury. I suppose pots need to be careful about identifying the color of kettles.

    Fortunately the Episcopal Church has, I think, been doing a better job of naming problems like this. (Not to say they may not still exist; but at least we name them and try to deal with them.)

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  3. The Kane West quote is what you call a full apology. The Williams quote is the oft used half apologies you see all the time these days. When the MLB pitcher Andy Pettitte finally admitted to using steroids he said "If what I did was an error in judgment on my part, I apologize." Thats not an apology!

    Letterman just avoided it all together.

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  4. I understand that Letterman apologizes more fully tonight (Monday, 10/5). [Whether his apology---to say nothing of contrition and amendment-of-life!---is sufficient is far, FAR above my pay grade].

    JC Fisher

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