The Fine Art Of Saying Sorry.
On 20 November the American journalist and writer Dana Schwartz launched a new website. It was called the Celebrity Perv Apology Generator, and it did exactly what it said. At the click of a “try again” button, it generated new apologies for lazy celebs, accused of appalling sexual misdemeanours, who couldn’t be fagged to get their publicists to write one for them. “As a person who was born in an era before women were ‘people,’ I am deeply ashamed but not ‘sorry’ because that means I’m guilty of something,” read one.
Or: “As the father of daughters, the allegations against me are troubling. I imagined that any woman would have been thrilled to see a tiny xxxxx peeking out from below my pasty, middle-aged paunch like the head of a geriatric albino turtle moments from death.” Click try again once more, and: “I feel tremendously guilty now that the things I did have been made public… I will get the help I so badly need because this isn’t actually my fault.”
It has been just two months since the New York Times published its first report alleging that film producer Harvey Weinstein was a serial harasser of women, with a history of assault, intimidation, exposure and unwanted touching; just two months since the appearance of the #MeToo hashtag and the accompanying dam burst of emboldened women coming forward to tell their dreadful stories; just two months in which the world’s crisis management professionals have been forced into overdrive, advising the likes of comedian Louis CK, NBC news broadcaster Mark Halperin and, perhaps most notoriously, the actor Kevin Spacey on the best way to do that thing your mum taught you to do: say sorry. The problem is they had all done a lousy job. Dana Schwartz’s apology generator is hilarious, but it can’t match the jaw-dropping, buttock-clenching awfulness of the real ones. Witness actor Ben Affleck, accused of groping an actor he had worked with, announcing that sexual harassment was “terrible” and was “happening on a scale that I don’t think anybody except maybe women understood.” That’s anybody apart from half the world’s population, Ben. Or the veteran American broadcaster Charlie Rose, who concluded his apology for decades of harassment with the line: “All of us, including me, are coming to a newer and deeper recognition of the pain caused by conduct in the past, and have come to a profound new respect for women and their lives.” Well, it may all be shiny and new to you Charlie, but some of us have been across it for quite a while. Josh Rivers, the short-lived editor of Gay Times, sacked for a history of abusive tweets, hoped that we could “all” use his offences as an opportunity for growth, and, confronted with the news that he had assaulted a then 14-year-old Anthony Rapp, Kevin Spacey shouted: “I’m gay!” Like it was news. Or, more importantly, in any way relevant.
There is only one conclusion: for a certain type of power-crazed, predatory, sexually dysfunctional man, “sorry” isn’t just the hardest word, it’s a non-starter. The simple business of modern apology is in abject crisis. According to showbiz agent Jonathan Shalit, who represents a sizeable roster of British celebrities, the problem is the intent. “Sorry is one of the most powerful words,” he says. “It moves the story on. The challenge you’ve got with the apologies from people like Weinstein and Spacey is that it appears they’re not sorry for the behaviour. They’re sorry they got caught. If you’re going to say sorry you’ve got to appear to mean it and be sincere.” As he says: “Most people mess up. What matters is how you deal with it afterwards. Most things you can come back from.” Though not, he adds, if you cross a moral line. “Kevin Spacey crossed that line.”
The curious thing about #PublicApologyfest2017, a brilliant hashtag literally no one has used, is that the political realm had already offered up more than enough examples of how to not do it. That’s a subject I know a little about. In 2004 I published a novel, The Apologist, about a man who becomes so good at apologizing to the people he has offended in his own life that he’s appointed Chief Apologist to the United Nations, tasked with apologising for sins like colonialism and slavery. It came complete with its own fictional academic, Prof Thomas Schenke, and his doctrine of Penitential Engagement (Point 1: Never apologize for anything for which you aren’t sorry.) Since its publication, a genuine academic literature around public apology has sprung up. There are studies with titles like The Age of Apology: Facing up to the Past and Official or Political Apologies and Improvement of Intergroup Relations: a Neo-Durkheimian Approach to Official Apologies as Rituals. Academics all over the world are interrogating the word “sorry” and how best to use it. Not that it’s really improved things. It got off to a good start. The general consensus is that the modern age of public apology began with German Chancellor Willy Brandt who, in December 1970, fell to his knees before the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto, as atonement for the Holocaust. It was regarded as a genuine and profound gesture of penitence. It took the arrival of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair on the world stage to screw everything up. They’d both concluded that, where the old-fashioned politician depended for their survival on huge oratory skills that would go over at the back of the room, modern politics was in close-up. You needed to be seen as an authentic emoting human being.
What more authentic human gesture was there than to apologise, especially if it was something you hadn’t done? In 1997, a month after winning his first general election, Blair apologised for Britain’s role in the Irish potato famine. In 1998 the Monica Lewinsky affair gave Clinton ample practice; enough indeed to prove that whatever your political experience you could still come across as a fibbing scumbag. That same year, Clinton stood on an airfield in Rwanda and apologised to the TV cameras for the failure of the US to act over the country’s genocide four years earlier. It played beautifully to the world, though perhaps less so in Rwanda itself, where the percentage of the population that owned television sets was in single digits. David Cameron made both of them look like lightweights. Cameron adored apologising, lived for it. He apologised for the way the Tories had called Nelson Mandela a terrorist, for Section 28 of a 1988 Tory education bill which banned the promotion of homosexuality to children, for British collusion in the murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane, for failures to protect the victims of the Hillsborough disaster and even for an ageist remark to veteran MP Dennis Skinner. The latter was notable because, unlike the others, it was something he’d done. Philip Collins was a speechwriter for Tony Blair and is the author of The Art of Speeches and Presentations: The Secrets of Making People Remember What You Say. He was involved in many conversations over apologies in Downing Street. “We had a long discussion about whether or not to apologise for slavery because there was some pressure to do so, but the gap between responsibility and words was so big we felt it would have been hollow,” he says. What, then, about the Iraq war? “We talked about that in detail, but in the end, the reason Blair didn’t apologise for it is that, amazingly, he isn’t sorry. He says he regrets the consequences, but he still thinks what he did was right.” On this point, Collins agrees with Shalit. “An apology needs to be sincere to function, it’s the act as well as the words that matter.” The problem with the post-Weinstein apologies, he says, is that: “People now apologise for the consequences, not the act itself.”
Eli Attie is uniquely placed to comment. He was a speechwriter both for Bill Clinton and Al Gore before moving to Hollywood to write for and later produce, The West Wing. In politics, he says, the political consultants advised against apologising – “Because the media would just want more.” The entertainment business, he says, is a different matter entirely. “I’ve been amazed at how careers have been ending here in Hollywood in just minutes,” he tells me. “I think we’re in a transition point in our culture where a certain kind of behaviour that was once acceptable no longer is. The instant condemnation of people is a way of saying: ‘We get it!’” What, then, does he think is the secret to a good apology? “It involves absolute grace, no bitterness and no withholding of anything.” I wonder what he thinks of the current crop. “I’ve read some of them. In one sense none of them flies. People who own the question quickly own the problem, but that doesn’t mean anyone will ever want to employ them again. Some of these people might be able to come back in five or 10 years. But those whose apologies are much more grudging, for them it’s the end of the road.” And Weinstein and Spacey? “For them, there is no redemption,” I ask whether, given his political experience, he has been consulted by any of those called upon to apologise. He declines to comment.
I turn instead to my fellow restaurant critic Giles Coren. He knows a bit about apologising. He’s been called upon to do it countless times. When I first texted him to suggest we discuss the issue he replies: “The biggest crime is never to write anything that needs no apology.” Nobody who has read Coren will be surprised by this. Likewise, when he says: “I mostly don’t say sorry. But it’s true I sometimes do.” Indeed, when we talk, it turns out he has just apologised. He recently wrote a piece for Esquire magazine, fat shaming his own four year-old-son. He hadn’t apologised for that. Heaven forfend. For Coren, his entire family is grist to the mill. If therapy was good enough for him it will be good enough for his kids, given time. However, in one line, he had referred to his son as looking “retarded,” an obviously offensive word which brought him absolutely everything he deserved. “I was writing for Esquire and turning up the laddishness,” Coren says now. But he says he wasn’t even aware he’d used the word until it was brought to his attention on social media. “I write thousands of words a week and sometimes… Anyway, I went back and looked. I was just beyond gutted I’d written that word. There was no excuse.” He got the magazine to change it online and then tweeted the disability charity Mencap to apologise. “They didn’t tweet me. I tweeted them.” So does “sorry” work? “It does for me, but only if I mean it. And that’s why I mostly don’t say sorry because I usually know exactly what I’m saying and what the effect will be.” God, but it must be exhausting being Giles Coren.
The problem for all those who have sinned in public life is the nature of modern media. Clinton and Blair worked out the importance of the TV camera close-up. But now it’s more intimate still: we read apologies from the screen in the palm of our hand. If it’s on a video we sit eyeball to eyeball, which leaves no wriggle room for insincerity at all. Try watching the 2016 video of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard (heading towards an acrimonious divorce) apologising for breaching Australian rules by illegally bringing in their dogs, as if a revolver was pointed at their heads just out of frame. Actually, don’t. We’ve all suffered enough. Will #PublicApologyfest2017 eventually blow over? Will high-profile people eventually stop saying sorry? Only if they run out of crimes and misdemeanours. Because if there’s one thing recent events have taught us, it’s that no one is too big and powerful not to be called out for their behaviour. The incidents all these men are admitting may have required an apology. And the apologies they’ve made may have been laughable. But that, at least, has to be a good thing.
Credit: Jay Rayner for The Observer, 10 December 2017.