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

(Posted by Sandeep)

In 1998, allegations that then-President Clinton had engaged in a sexual relationship with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, compounded an ongoing grand jury trial investigating the president’s role in several unrelated political scandals.

America’s attention immediately became fixed on the sex, of course; political intrigue can only hold the nation captivated for so long. President Clinton asserted that he hadn’t had “sexual relations” with Lewinsky, based on his understanding of the definition of the phrase. Because of the trial and Clinton’s alleged perjury during it, the House of Representatives began impeachment proceedings, which were followed by a three-week trial in the Senate. The Senate trial concluded without a successful vote for impeachment. On August 17, Clinton acknowledged in a televised address that he had “misled people” with his testimony by telling the truth as it was asked for but not volunteering information. His statement lasted for a little over four minutes and 542 words.

Clinton’s statement is part confession, part apology, and part justification. He confesses that he “did not volunteer information” and that he indeed “had a relationship … that was not appropriate.”

For most Americans, this wasn’t the first time they had heard rumors that this was true, but it was the first time they had heard it directly from the president. It was new conclusive information, and Clinton was acknowledging responsibility. That part was a confession. Continuing, he apologizes for his actions, saying he “deeply regret[s]” that he had misled people.

Clinton’s choice of “regret” in this sentence is curious because while he acknowledges that he is “solely and completely responsible,” the word “regret” has a shade of meaning which implies an absence of free will in an action. Merriam-Webster’s first definition of “regret” states that it involves feeling “sorrow aroused by circumstances beyond one’s control or power to repair.” One can regret something over which he has no control. One might regret more often in situations where one doesn’t have control, and one might be sorry or apologetic when one does have control.

In the O.E.D., “regret” is defined in relation to “external circumstances or events” before it is defined in relation to “something one has done or omitted to do.” One could argue both sides.

Of course, Austin’s second reason for studying excuses (see my previous post) is that our words are inadequate and arbitrary, and that we shouldn’t be troubled by this (“words are not … facts or things” [182])— so perhaps we should only take Clinton’s explicit admission of responsibility and ignore the shades of meaning in his word choice. While he might be a gifted craftsman of language (as many politicians are), his understanding of regret may not gel with ours.

Finally, Clinton justifies why he answered questions the way he did: to protect his family, and to avoid giving personal answers in a politically inspired lawsuit.

Interestingly, he finishes with a sort of scolding — attempting to make those who followed the sex scandal feel guilty for doing so, and chastising his detractors for confusing private and public life and distracting the nation when, he says, there are more important things to be done. This does not form part of his overall apologetic statement, but it does add an interesting twist, returning the moral high ground to himself — because while he did something wrong, his opponents were wrong to pursue it in the contexts they did.

And he doesn’t only put the weight on his opponents, but on his whole audience, encouraging them to move past this and return to working on “the promise of the next American century” — a task which no American would actively ignore. By saying this, Clinton shifts the discourse from private to public at the end.

The first rough third of Clinton’s statement is given over mostly to establishing his guilt and confessing about his behavior. He explicitly expresses “regret” only once, at the end of the first third. In the second third, he attempts to explain his motivation for hiding his behavior. And at the end, he spends the last third of his total time engaging in a scolding of his listeners and detractors. This distribution is curious — the actual “apologetic” part of his statement is only two-thirds of the total. This fact gives us some insight into the machinations of Clinton’s mind at the time — his shame, his sorrow, and finally his defiance.

When the many mistresses of golfer Tiger Woods, a man who had been (until then) one of the few sports superstars unsullied with professional or personal scandals, came forward in late 2009 with their stories, the media erupted with rumors, photographs, and details. This was exciting; this was new; this was a brilliant chance to expose the failings of a celebrity who had been very guarded about his personal life. At first, Woods didn’t acknowledge or deny his actions; soon afterward, he made a brief statement acknowledging some “personal failings” but didn’t offer any details. Finally, on February 19, 2010, over three months after suggestions of his affairs first came to light, he delivered a 14-minute, 1,521-word statement acknowledging guilt and promising atonement.

Woods’s apologetic statement comprises all four of our categories: it is part excuse, part justification, part apology, and part confession. This is the first time in public he has acknowledged the extent of his extramarital affairs. He spends much of his time excoriating himself, lambasting his character failings, and promising change.

Like Clinton, who referenced his relationship to God and his family as the only relevant ones in dealing with his personal transgressions, Woods invokes his faith, Buddhism, as a reason the public can be assured he’ll atone and behave well. This appeal to a higher power, while it might be genuine, is also convenient: no one can deny a man his most personal relationship to his religion. Whether Clinton, Woods, and others are truly atoning for their transgressions in the context of their religions is not something which the public can (easily) challenge.

In 1,521 words, Woods says “sorry” just three times — “so sorry,” “deeply sorry,” and “truly sorry.”

It seems to have become the norm to qualify “sorry” in apologies, because there seems to be a general acknowledgment that saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough — one needs to be “deeply sorry” or “profoundly sorry” or to “sincerely apologize,” because being “sorry” or simply “apologizing” doesn’t properly convey the type of apology that the speaker believes the situation demands.

So Bill Clinton “deeply regret[s]” his actions and Tiger Woods is “deeply sorry” for his behavior. Indeed, it would probably seem empty if Clinton just “regretted” or Woods just said he was “sorry” — those words are tossed around easily, the public believes, and they don’t suffice. One needs to add an adverb, a qualifier, an indication that the apology is genuine (“genuinely sorry”) because the terms “sorry” and “apologize,” presumably after countless apologies over the years, have lost their emotive force.

Austin notices this: “it is interesting to find that a high percentage of the terms connected with excuses prove to be adverbs” (187).

It is notable that Woods waits until almost a third of the way through his apologetic statement to explicitly say what he did: “I was unfaithful. I had affairs. I cheated.” Until then, he was speaking generally about his misbehavior and his shame.

He also offers a few explanations for what he did. Are Woods’s arguments that he acted the way he did because “felt that [he] had worked hard [his] entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around [him]” excuses or justifications?

Out of context, one could argue that those remarks are simply excuses. But because Woods is not shunning responsibility elsewhere in his statement — “I brought this shame upon myself” — we can more easily argue that he is justifying his actions: offering explanations but not avoiding culpability. And finally, like Clinton, Woods transfers the weight onto the listener — “I am asking for your help” — and shifts the discourse from private to public. He’s not absolving himself totally of responsibility but he’s adding some responsibility for the audience.

The first half of Woods’s statement is given over to a self-excoriation and the second half is spent explaining the motivations behind his behavior. Unlike Clinton, Woods never shifts blame or scolds; he only excuses, confesses, apologizes, and attempts to justify.

I wonder if this is because of the different roles they play in the public sphere — Clinton is a chosen official, so one could argue that he stands on ground high enough to scold others; Woods was never chosen to be a public figure, and so he never had that sort of moral position.

Woods is not unaware of his public role. The fact that he was so secretive about his personal affairs before recently shows that he has (or had) a good understanding of how to maintain his image. And as a part of that understanding, Woods is aware that he does not have the moral ground, like Clinton might, to scold the media and public for following his private life so closely.

On the other hand, Clinton was elected by the public to serve the public — and a distraction from that, Clinton might feel, doesn’t only harm himself but the country. The fact that Clinton holds an elected position might give him the moral force to not just apologize but to chastise.

Why do personal, private transgressions of behavior warrant public apologetic statements? Well, the traditional argument goes, public figures must apologize to those who viewed them as role models, since a figure’s behavior, in harming his/her image as a role model, has harmed his/her audience.

And it’s quite obvious that sexual transgressions are the most popular. Sex sells — and sexual deviancy is particularly frowned upon in our society, more so than other personal or professional misbehavior.

Austin deals with excuses because they are of great importance — not just from a philosophical point of view (in terms of moral language), but also from legal standpoint. Sometimes accused people issue apologetic statements after it’s impossible to be prosecuted for a misdeed. O.J. Simpson, who was embroiled in the legal proceedings involving the murder of his ex-wife and another man, wrote a book called If I Did It several years after charges against him had been dropped.

The book was widely interpreted as a confession, but since charges had been dropped Simpson couldn’t incriminate himself. Excuses aren’t just a part of everyday language; they are an important part of formal, prescribed language as well.

The differences between the apologetic statements of Tiger Woods and Bill Clinton, ostensibly for the same type of offense, can be understood well in terms of the roles that each public figure plays. Woods, an athlete who wasn’t chosen or didn’t choose to enter the public eye, doesn’t have the sort of moral sway that Clinton, a chosen official, has.

And so that’s why the timbre of each apologetic statement is different — Woods is solemn and shameful, and Clinton is sorrowful at the beginning and defiant at the end. Clinton can afford to be brief; Woods elaborates. Clinton can look away from his audience; Woods must hold a press conference. And Woods is beholden to include all four elements of the apologetic statement, whereas Clinton does not have to excuse himself.

What are your thoughts on public apologies? Should public figures have to make them at all? And if they’re missing one of the four categories outlined in my previous post (excuses, justifications, apologies, confessions), does that remove some of their power? Are some categories more persuasive?