Let me just get this out of the way right off the bat. I’m sorry if you have been offended by my hunger for fact-checking.
Oh, except I’m not sorry. Besides, believing in facts over hyper-partisan fiction doesn’t merit an apology. Saying something lewd on a hot mic, though …
And no, this—“This was locker room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago. Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course—not even close. I apologize if anyone was offended.”—is not an apology.
Vox spoke to linguist Edwin Battistella of Southern Oregon University, the author of Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology, after the Donald Trump apology on Friday. Battistella called it a “non-apology” in its normalizing of degrading banter (which happens to be inappropriate for a family newspaper), deflection of attention, and that conditional “if” construction that puts “the onus on others to react—to claim that they were offended or not. A morally serious apology would respond to the content of what he said—demeaning women—and the effects of his comments.”
Trump’s statement is miles below that from Billy Bush, the interviewer on the now-infamous Access Hollywood shoot (click the link to see it; I won’t embed it here): “Obviously I’m embarrassed and ashamed. It’s no excuse, but this happened 11 years ago—I was younger, less mature, and acted foolishly in playing along. I’m very sorry.”
No conditional “if you were offended” here, but an acknowledgement of what happened, remorse, and an “I’m sorry,” which is what an apology should be, defined by Oxford as “a regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure.” Sure, it wasn’t perfect, and Bush has had his own problems with lewd comments caught on tape, but in comparison with Trump’s defense, it wasn’t terrible.
If there is any sort of conditional modifier, that nullifies what could be sincere remorse. A person using such an “apology” is essentially saying that he’s sorry only under certain circumstances … which means he’s not really sorry for anything other than, maybe, being caught. Likewise, attempts to justify actions or deflect attention elsewhere (some third party or even the person offended), pointing out that the offended has done the same thing, taking the offender out of the equation, etc., just exacerbate the offense and are not apologies. (Daily Kos has a pretty good rundown of what constitutes, and doesn’t, an apology.)
Stan Carey of Slate’s Lexicon Valley blog wrote in 2014: “Non-apologies are phrased in bad faith in a way that minimizes accountability. The aim is not to atone but to reduce damage to the person’s image. Repentance is feigned or ignored, contrition held at arm’s length. Non-apologizers, far from showing empathy with those hurt, are more likely to implicitly blame them for getting upset, manufacturing offense, or interpreting the incident in a way that reflects badly on the wrongdoer.”
Trump is far from the only celebrity non-apologist. Blake Shelton “apologized” in August for old tweets from 2009 and 2010 that had resurfaced and managed to offend and creep out large numbers of people. In addition to apologizing deeply to “anybody who may have been offended,” Shelton claimed the tweets were comedy.
Alec Baldwin, now the face of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, has had to issue several public apologies over the years, some successful and some much less so. His apology in 2011 after being ejected from an airplane when crew members said he refused to turn off his cell phone and became abusive toward them was one of the failures. Baldwin apologized after the fact, but only to the passengers affected; the crew … not so much. His Trump apple-a-gizing on SNL, though … excellent.
In 2004, Justin Timberlake apologized for the infamous Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction,” but apparently only because CBS wouldn’t let him appear on the Grammys without a mea culpa. And yep, he apologized “if you guys were offended.”
Celebrities, though, aren’t incapable of a good apology, as proved by Hugh Grant and Jonah Hill. Grant, who was caught with a prostitute 21 years ago (when he was seriously involved with Liz Hurley), simply ’fessed up, said he was sorry, and didn’t try to minimize what he’d done. He told Jay Leno:
“It’s not easy explaining. People have given me tons of ideas on this one, from ‘I was under a lot of pressure, I was lonely, I fell down the stairs when I was a kid’ … but I think it would just be bollocks to say anything like that.”
Hill apologized in 2014 for calling a paparazzo by a homophobic slur, taking full responsibility and acknowledging the weight of words.
“My heart’s broken and I genuinely am deeply sorry to anyone who’s been affected by that term in their life. I’m sorry and I don’t deserve or expect your forgiveness, but what I’ll ask is that at home, if you’re watching this, and you’re a young person especially, if someone says something that hurts you or angers you, use me as an example of what not to do and don’t respond with hatred or anger, because you’re just adding more ugliness into the world and again, I’m just so sorry.”
The best apologies tend to be pretty simple: The person admits the transgression, takes responsibility, and sincerely expresses remorse and regret. Once the apology is done, he shuts up.
When you don’t keep going back to defend yourself, it’s much easier to keep from sticking a very large foot in your mouth … which is a sure way to keep the story alive.
While we’re on the topic of the Trump “apology,” let’s clear up something. These weren’t exactly “private” comments: The participants were taping a television show and were on microphones the entire time and accompanied by crew from the show. (Same goes for Trump comments in the same vein on Howard Stern’s radio show.) Comments on the golf course or in the locker room, on the other hand, generally aren’t being recorded for possible air on TV or radio, so there would be an expectation of privacy there.
One of the first things warned of in any broadcasting class I ever took in college was that you always treat mics as if they’re on because one unthinking utterance could get you fired or sued … or endlessly mocked, as in Ronald Reagan’s “outlawing” Russia in 1984.
If only more people took that advice. But then we might have less to talk about. Never mind; some of us might need the material.
Speaking of material, there are just too many good editorial cartoons to leave out here, so here’s a sampling of my other favorites on the topic of the lewd comments.
On another topic entirely, best wishes to former Sen. David Pryor (and governor and current UA trustee) and his family. If you haven’t heard the news, the senator suffered an apparent stroke Monday, and is recovering in the hospital after surgery.
Of the politicians I’ve met, however briefly, in my life, Pryor (along with the late Dale Bumpers and John Paul Hammerschmidt) is one of the nicest, most genuine people you could hope to meet. What he says is what he means, which is a quality sadly lacking nowadays.
From this fellow stroke survivor (now 20 months), positive thoughts and prayers for a full recovery!