Thursday, November 7, 2019


In The Atlantic, Megan Garber has an article on what she sees as the death of apologies from public figures. I'm not sure that I agree with her premises.

"There was a time" she notes, "In American public life when atonement was seen as a form of strength—a way not only to own up to one’s missteps, but also to do that classic work of crisis management: control the narrative." And it's worth noting that when Ms. Garber quotes Presidents Kennedy, Reagan and (George W.) Bush to back this up, all of them took or acknowledged responsibility. But none of them apologized, in the sense that their statements "clearly admitted wrongdoing." And this leaves aside the fact that the Bay of Pigs, Iran-Contra and Hurricane Katrina were not personal acts on the parts of the Presidents. Rather, the problem arose with failed government action. And this sets them apart from Louis C.K. and President Trump, whose actions, as noted in the article (Louis C.K.'s sexual misconduct and President Trump's mocking a supporter he'd mistaken for a critic), were personal. Taking responsibility for the poor performance and/or missteps of an organization that one is in charge of is not the same as apologizing for a personal act of wrongdoing. And so this leaves us without the apples-to-apples comparison that would allow us (at least within the context of the article) to evaluate whether those perceived as powerful had been more forthcoming with mea culpas in the past.

In any event, the reasoning is that many public figures today operate within a relatively recent paradigm one "in which the true sign of power is not responsibility but impunity." Personally, I would argue that impunity is always a true sign of power, or at least significant power, although it may be more accurate to say that it is impunity that grants power in the first place. This is another reason why I am dubious that there was a culture of apologies at the top in earlier years.

By way of explanation of what may have changed, Ms. Garber notes: "And when humility gets confused with humiliation, defiance becomes a point of pride." This strikes me as somewhat akin to saying: "When carmine is confused for scarlet." Humility and humiliation are not terribly different from one another. Both words, unsurprisingly, have their origins in the Latin humilis, or "low." The difference between humility and humiliation is not in the end state, but how it is arrived at: whether it is one's own choice or imposed from without. It's like another derivative of humilis, "humble." "To be humble" is a different thing than "to be humbled," although again, the end state is the same.

In this, the idea that apology and humility were once seen as forms of strength represents a certain contradiction, but an explanatory one. Offering to lower oneself is often seen as magnanimous, but that doesn't mean that people are actually taken up on it. If we presume that Presidents Kennedy, Reagan and Bush were offering genuine acts of contrition, then we must also note that it really went no further than the offer. While President Kennedy was assassinated, this didn't seem to be a direct reaction to the Bay of Pigs incident. President Reagan remained popular enough that George H. W. Bush was able to succeed him in the White House and President George W. Bush's tenure was marred by the "Great Recession" rather than the Hurricane Katrina response.

At one point, Mr. Garber quotes psychologist Harriet Lerner thusly: “For some men, the very act of apologizing, of simply saying ‘I was wrong, I made a mistake, I’m sorry,’ may feel unmanly, uncomfortable, if not intolerable.” And here I think is the important piece: The impunity that gives power also means that people who have it, generally men, don't have to lower themselves, nor suffer themselves to be lowered by others. And I think that it's worth noting that for many people, both humility and humiliation are undesirable in their leaders. Given this, it seems unlikely that the pattern that Ms. Garber sees will go away any time soon. There isn't enough benefit in being low that it's a universally rational choice.

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