#sorryimnotsorry: good apologies gone bad (Part 1/2)

(Posted by Sandeep)

A recent meme that’s been making the rounds on the Internet is the pithy, defiant Twitter hashtag #sorryimnotsorry: “Sorry [that] I’m not sorry [for my actions, clothing, attitude, words, etc.].”

It’s the perfect little encapsulation of a pervasive attitude in our generation. Back off; it’s your problem that you have a problem with my conduct. (There’s even a book out called Sorry I’m Not Sorry.)

Saying “sorry” is a funny thing. As a law student, I’ve been thinking about “#sorryimnotsorry” and how many parties in our readings are running that idea through their heads when they lose a case.

Some of them should be sorry, to be sure. But if they aren’t, maybe they’re not sorry for a reason: they can excuse their behavior. Or maybe they can offer a justification that absolves them of guilt. (Or maybe they’re just jerks.) In our Criminal Law class, we are taught to examine a charged crime first in terms of the act itself, then the defendant’s mental state, and then finally any possible excuses or justifications that could explain and/or mitigate the crime.

J. L. Austin, in his chapter “A Plea for Excuses” in Philosophical Papers (3rd edition), discusses ordinary language from the point of excuses, exploring “what we should say when, and so why and what we should mean by it” (181; emphasis in original), in order to draw some conclusions about the use of moral language to talk about behavior. He offers three justifications for this approach:

(1) that “words are our tools” and they should be “clean,” i.e. understood by us when we use them;
(2) that words aren’t “facts or things” — they can be arbitrary or imprecise or inadequate; and
(3) that the words available in a natural language suffice to satisfactorily convey all distinctions that we might like to make (181-2).

Austin draws a distinction between excuses and justifications, but we might also add apologies and confessions into our discussion, too.

An excuse, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary in its sense most relevant here, is “that which is offered as a reason for being excused; sometimes in bad sense, a (mere) pretext, a subterfuge; a plea in extenuation of an offense.” An excuse seems to be most useful when one wants to distance oneself from responsibility in an offensive action. It’s rewriting the story of the speaker’s involvement in the deed. For Austin, an excuse aims “to defend [one’s] conduct or to get [one] out of it” (176).

In criminal law, if a jury or judge buys a complete excuse (such as, say, insanity), a defendant may escape punishment.

An excuse can be distinguished from a justification, which, in the O.E.D., is “the action of justifying or showing something to be just, right, or proper; vindication of oneself.” A justification doesn’t serve to distance oneself from an offense; it attempts to rewrite the story of an offense so that it’s no longer offensive. In Austin’s words, a justification argues that an action “was a good thing, or the right or sensible thing, or a permissible thing to do” (176).

In criminal law, a justification may mitigate punishment. For example, a conviction of murder could be slightly reduced to voluntary manslaughter if a jury or judge finds a justification convincing.

In both excuses and justifications, there is a rewriting taking place — the deed in question is being questioned, and the players and responsibilities are being challenged. For alleged criminals, excuses and justifications are often the last strings they and their attorneys cling onto.

These two can be contrasted with an apology, which, in the O.E.D., is “an explanation offered to a person affected by one’s action that no offense was intended, coupled with the expression of regret for any that may have been given; or, a frank acknowledgement of the offense with expression of regret for it, by way of reparation.” A pure apology acknowledges that a deed has been done in the way that the audience has perceived it. One must apologize to someone for an action for which the speaker is responsible (and admits so) and because of which the audience was offended.

So while excuses and justifications do not necessarily require an audience specifically wronged by the excused/justified action, an apology cannot be delivered without one. And while excuses and justifications seek to reframe the deed, apologies acknowledge it as it is perceived.

There is also the confession, “the disclosing of something the knowledge of which by others is considered humiliating or prejudicial to the person confessing.” A confession brings new information to the table, whereas excuses, justifications, and apologies deal with information known already to the audience. But like an apology, a confession acknowledges a deed and doesn’t (yet) attempt to rewrite anything.

An apology or confession, in the context of criminal law, would come from guilty defendants. They might be overt, such as in a killer’s teary trial testimony, or they might be covert, such as in some interpretations of O.J. Simpson’s post-trial book If I Did It.

#sorryimnotsorry doesn’t fit neatly into any of these categories. It starts off with an apology — “sorry” — but the whole sense isn’t really apologetic. It has attitude. It’s almost a confession: I confess that I feel no regret; I apologize if I hurt your feelings with my attitude. But it’s not even that–people who use #sorryimnotsorry aren’t really apologetic about anything. It has undertones of that annoyed teenage response: “sor-ry!” The implications held in the tone of voice and manner of presentation indicate that the speaker/writer isn’t sorry at all.

In other words, it’s a “sorry-less sorry.” It drains the word “sorry” of its usual meaning and ascribes to it a new, totally opposite definition. (In that sense, it reminds me of that linguistics joke John posted a few weeks ago.)

In the context of the law, some judges might even approve sanctions on lawyers if they don’t stay within these four categories of excuses, justifications, apologies, and confessions.

“This court has recognized that requiring counsel to apologize for errant conduct can have an exquisite impact … The letters [of apology] shall not contain qualifying or conditional language [such as] … ‘Because the court has required that I do so, I am apologizing…’ or ‘Although I disagree with the court’s decision, I am apologizing…’ ” Crank v. Crank, 1998 WL 713273, N.D. Tex. 1998.

A defendant who had the attitude of #sorryimnotsorry wouldn’t get very far. In fact, a defendant who wanted to get any drop of sympathy from a judge or jury would have to engage in one of the four acts described above. We don’t seem to like apologetic statements that stray outside of these categories. Consciously or not, we are often negatively predisposed towards those who attempt to construct an apologetic statement beyond these acts.

But what about celebrities’ public apologetic statements? Tomorrow: Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, and the art of making a public apology.