Are apologies meaningful?

People are asking Rush Limbaugh to apologize to the young woman that he called a slut and prostitute.

People demanded that the federal judge in Montana who emailed a racist joke about President Obama to friends and family apologize. He did, though in a lame way.

My question:


Why do we demand apologies in circumstances like these? Do we really believe the words “I’m sorry” always express sincere sorrow and regret? Do we really believe in these cases, the offense was unintended? I don’t think we do, because most of us are intelligent. And yet our actions say otherwise. On the radio today, the talking head said, “Well, the judge DID apologize. We have to give him credit for that.” No the hell we don’t! Just because someone apologizes doesn’t make everything magically alright. I’m sure the black person who has to stand in front of that judge will not be thinking, “Well, he DID say he was sorry. So everything’s cool now.”

Seems to me that public apologies have become a quick and easy way of manipulating natural reactions to real breaches of conduct. Issue an apology and if the “victim” doesn’t hush up about it, then we can turn them into the bad guy–that crybaby whiner who won’t stop playing the victim. We apologized! What more do they want from us!

I await Rush Limbaugh’s insincere “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.”

It sends a signal to other people: “Don’t do what I just did.” It helps reinforce the consensual morality.

The best she can do, I figure, is say something like:

“I find it sad and concerning that Limbaugh’s particular recipe of fear, hatred, ignorance and bigotry can find an audience in America, instead of the curt dismissal he deserves, and regardless of whatever else he might say about me, that’s all I have to say about him.”

No apology he can give, even if sincere, is going to matter if next week or next month he lashes out at someone else the same way, and we all know he will because that’s what his audience has come to expect.

Obviously it doesn’t make things automatically better, but it helps some. If nothing else, the fact that there’s enough social pressure to evoke even a insincere apology helps demonstrate to others that some behavior isn’t socially acceptable.

There’s also context. Limbaugh has a pretty long history of saying crazy shit. If he apologizes, I don’t think anyone really buys it, or thinks he won’t be in the same situation again in another year or two.

The Judge, on the other hand, doesn’t so far as I know have a history of this kind of thing, and so its at least plausible that this was just a one-off for him and he in fact really sorry.

(and why I usually don’t espouse eugenics, I for one hope anyone unlucky enough to be Limbaugh’s sexual partner does in fact use lots and lots of birthcontrol.)

When I think of apologies, I think of personal apologies, which I personally find extremely pointless and about as offensive as the act which brought it about. But social apologies definitely serve a purpose. I don’t know if Rush in particular could be sincere in such an apology, and regardless of whether he was or wasn’t sincere there would be a portion of his audience which would suppose that he was merely pressured into an apology about something he shouldn’t be sorry about, but ultimately I think it does indeed send a signal as Trinopus put in far fewer words than I.

The judge’s “apology” was worse than no apology at all. Such vituperative sentiments, such as those of the judge’s, should preferably not exist. If such sentiments do exist, they should preferably be kept strictly to oneself as to not contaminate other people.

As far as Rush goes … my sentiments reflect every reasonable person’s. Demagoguery gone wild.

I’m not sure what you mean that personal apologies are pointless. When I apologize to my wife for something I’ve done to make her mad, I assure you that it is meant.

She may accept it. I would not.

It is not a question of sincerity for me. It is the simple fact of the matter that what is done cannot be undone. If there is a problem with what was done, the only meaningful result is that it not be done again. Some apologies are like a vow, but I find them shallow in the face of events.

Other apologies are worse. They’re of the kind, “I’m sorry if this hurt you.” To live life over, they’d do it again—they only sympathize. The apology means nothing at all in such cases.

But an apology in front of others is more than a vow or a pointless expression of sympathy (not that sympathy is itself pointless), it is an expression of a standard. And standards of human interactions are important. They help avoid apologies.

Forcing a public apology out of a public figure for something like this is a way of shaming and humiliating them as social censure. No, we don’t expect them to really be sincere with it, although that’s a nice bonus if it happens. The point is that they have to take back what they said, and they look douchey as a result, and the rest of us can be satisfied that we have enforced appropriate social behavior as a group.

Private apologies are totally different, and are certainly expected to be sincere, as well as being a means of assuring the apologee that the offending behavior will not be repeated.

For me, a good apology has to consist of: acknowledgment of the offense, admission of fault, and promise not to repeat the offending behavior. (I.e., “I dropped your favorite dish. It was my fault. I won’t let it happen again.”) An apology lacking any of these elements is not a good apology. But if it’s sincere, and all elements are there, then of course I’d accept it.

Yes but I’m an asshole.

Fair enough.

That just strikes me as completely bizarre. Given your beliefs about apologies, I take it that you never apologize for anything yourself. Has that ever caused you trouble in your socialization with others?

MsWhatsit, It’s not that I necessarily disagree with you. Expressions of sympathy are important, and often they do begin with “I’m sorry,” but those words do not constitute an apology. Obviously, acknowledging an accident and its pain is a matter of sympathy. If we’re calling such things apologies, then I accept apologies. I’m thinking more of intentional acts which are later regretted.

Probably, but nothing which has revealed itself directly. I avoid behavior I know would cause others harm. If I do so anyway, then I already know the apology means nothing: I did something, maybe even stupidly, in full knowledge that if caught or outed I’d catch hell for it. I accept the hell.

I think others have a much looser definition of apology, amounting to almost any expression of sympathy. If it is treated so loosely, then as I said to MsWhatsit, I definitely use and accept apologies.

Has Rush publicly apologized to anyone for anything he’s said on his show? Ever?

I don’t recall an occasion, which if true means he and the OP are in agreement.

I would like to see him forced to apologize merely because it’s likely to be the most insincere, grudging, self-pitying apology any of us will ever see in our lifetimes.

What I want to see is Rush being forced to read a prepared apology on live television. After each word, he has to pause, and someone will toss an Oxycontin tablet onto the ground in front of him, which he must pick up and stuff into a belly bag that he has been given for the purpose. If at any time he makes any facial expression other than a big, shit-eating grin, he will forfeit the entire belly bag of Oxycontin and also his radio show.

I’m just thinking out loud here, really.

News broke in the NFL world today that St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had a “bounty system” when he was coaching in New Orleans, Washington, and possibly Buffalo. He would pay money to his players (taken from fines paid for being late to meetings and whatnot) for especially vicious hits, even if the hit drew a penalty. More was paid for big hits on QBs, and if it was a really high profile player like Tom Brady or one of the Mannings, an even bigger bonus was paid. One player in Washington was said to have earned $8,000 for a single game.

About an hour after the story started showing up all over the web, Williams apologized:

My initial response was along the lines of making a loose fist and shaking my hand back and forth. I don’t buy for one second that it’s a legitimate apology. It’s more like he’s sorry for having been caught. He wants to seem remorseful because he hopes it’ll get him a shorter suspension and because he knows that if he doesn’t, everyone will be asking, “Why doesn’t he at least apologize?”

I don’t think it’s a looser definition I just think you define apology far differently than others. I don’t consider an apology to be an expression of sympathy. But whatever, I apologize for hijacking the thread.

The thread is about two specific apologies, one of which assuredly involved an action the judge knew would get him shit if found out. The other is of a similar character. Accidentally dropping someone’s favorite coffee cup is a totally different kind of event. If we say one can apologize in both cases, I won’t argue the point. Then apologies are very meaningful, because who would say an expression of regret, an acknowledgement of pain, are meaningless token gestures?

I don’t think this is what the OP meant by “apology,” given the examples, even if the OP considers saying “I’m sorry” after breaking a cup an apology.