The Non-Apology Apology


Disclaimer: If anyone takes offense from anything I’ve written in this piece, let me tell you that my regret runs deep. Is it a waste of time to apologize for writing something before writing it, perhaps, but I am seeking a license to write whatever the hell I want without fear of recrimination. Is this apology heartfelt? No, but don’t let that cloud your interpretations of my commentary, for no one can know what’s in my heart. It’s my hope that others can use these words as a lesson, and that we can one day have a long, overdue discussion on whatever it is that participants speak of in national conversations.

The non-apology apology should’ve reached its “Jump the Shark” moment a long time ago, yet there are still some that approach a non-apology apology in a serious manner.

The inspiration for this piece issued an apology within the same press conference as the offensive comment he made. He didn’t do it in the same sentence, but it was close … very close. Some of us thought this was the moment, the moment when listeners would throw their hands up in the air and said, “Okay, it’s now over. No one can ever apologize in a non-apologetic fashion ever again. The bastardization of this joke is now complete. It’s official now.”

As with every privilege, there comes a point when the abuse of it is so thorough that it is exposed for what it is, and this alleged perpetrator issued his apology in a manner that one should’ve considered that this guy might be trying to expose the farcical nature of the non-apology apology. It appeared worthy of a Saturday Night Live! skit.

An ESPN analyst that is purported to be drug-free added to the farcical nature of this quandary by prefacing his comments:

“Let me start off by saying that (the alleged perpetrator) issued a full apology for the comment …”  

He did, and no one can take them away from him, but he did it in the same press conference! Does that fact factor into the “we can’t know what’s in his heart” equation?

The definition of the word apology should lead some to believe it requires some sort of reflection, or a degree of awareness brought on by others’ reactions, but this guy came close to prefacing his offensive comment with an apology. Had he been issuing a challenging opinion, the alleged perpetrator could have said, “I hope this comment doesn’t offend anyone, but …” and all would be right with the world, but this guy called another guy a very politically incorrect name, and he came close … very close to apologizing for it in the same sentence.

As one that tries to pay attention to the rules of decorum, such that they stretch into the ridiculous, politically correct (PC) codes of conduct –to violate them– I thought that we were all supposed to make a concerted effort to avoid offending EVERYONE. Even those that seek grievance in every sentence we issue should not find offense in everything said by anyone, for any reason. Does this mean that the non-apology apology provides an asterisk in the pantheon of PC rules we’re all supposed to abide by, or does the non-apology apology give sympathetic listeners a license to laugh at the comment without doing damage their PC soul count?

The thing that plagues those of us looking in on the PC world from our outlier status is that the analysts that qualify their analysis of an offensive comment with a notation that the alleged perpetrator apologized are usually the biggest the front line combatants against anything that does not fit in the PC codes of conduct and speech. They allow some people to skate with their non-apology apologies, and they hold others accountable regardless if they apologize or not. How do the PC enforcers determine who is truly apologetic, and who is not, if you accept the qualifier they grant to the good guys that you can’t know what’s in a person’s heart? How do they determine who the good guys are and who are the bad guys in the PC, non-apology apology world? Do they sort through a person’s voting record to determine those that are worthy of defense?

“The non-apology apology, “(Is) not a full apology; it’s verbal judo, with a passive-aggressive spin, subtly implicating the victim for taking offense,” Linguist Edwin Battistella writes in a Politico Magazine piece. 

Of the numerous non-apology apologies Battistella uses to illustrate his description of the modern-day non-apology apology, he focuses on those made by former Senator Bob Packwood and the current Vice-President Joe Biden at one point in the article.

Joe Biden claimed that then-candidate Barack Obama (in the 2008 election) was:

“The first sort of mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” 

His follow up, non-apology apology:

“I deeply regret any offense my remark in the New York Observer might have caused anyone.”

Those forced to apologize know that there are three principles that are called for to achieve true contrition: “I was wrong, I’m sorry, and I will never do it again.” Biden does call some attention to his remark, but only in the light that it “might” have caused offense to someone, somewhere, as opposed to it being an offensive comment. Following the tenets of the non-apology apology, Biden avoids admitting to any wrongdoing, and thus avoids the political consequences of wrongdoing.

He also doesn’t say I’m sorry, rather he uses “verbal judo” to inform you that he now sees how some could’ve misconstrued his choice of words as offensive, and that that causes him regret that is deep. It’s on you, in essence, if you found that comment offensive, and if you did … Here, let me give you this shove this nugget up in you, to keep you quiet. One could also assume, based on the choice of words Biden used in the non-apology apology that he may have even yawned while saying it.

If another Biden forced to elaborate, I’m sure he would say that he intended the comment to be a compliment of Barack Obama. The fact that his general condemnation could be said to be, at the very least, condescending to all African-Americans that are not Barack Obama does not appear to have entered his purview, or his apology. Some could also infer that by using the words “deeply regret” that he’ll never say it again, but actually saying that would be a violation of the non-apology apology in that it would be an admission of guilt or wrongdoing. Biden, like most of those that employ the non-apology apology, simply invites the inference.

Battistella claims that this modern strain of the non-apology apology, used by Biden and Packwood, is a conditional apology, as evidenced by their extreme reliance on indefinites. These indefinites rely on indefinite pronouns like “anyone” or “anything” to try to avoid naming the particular offense for which they’re apologizing.

“I’m apologizing for the conduct that it was alleged that I did, and I say I am sorry,” said former Senator Bob Packwood.

“Even as he claimed he was taking responsibility for his behavior and he was sorry for it,” Battistella writes, “Packwood refused to describe it or to acknowledge it had taken place.”

“The conduct” that Packwood non-apology apologized for was sexual harassment, and by claiming that it was “alleged” he was hoping to apologize for it without admitting guilt, to save whatever remained of his political career. It didn’t work, of course, and the Senate forced Packwood to resign in shame.

NBC News claims that former President Richard Nixon was the first to use the current strain of the non-apology apology, on television. NBC states that Nixon used the non-apology apology on television to escape the political calamity that was doused by his Checkers speech, and then to lessen the aftermath of Watergate in his resignation speech.

“The televised non-apology apology may sound like an apology, it may even include the words regret or sorry,” said the commentator on NBC’s piece, “But as Linguist Edwin Battistella notes, “Many political mea culpas are too evasive, too vague, and ultimately too self-congratulatory to be true apologies.”

Speechwriters and aides pine over these apologies to try to find the perfect apology that admits no wrongdoing while addressing the issue in question. Joe Biden and Bob Packwood are not alone in using the non-apology apology that strives to allow us all to move past their offense, without focusing on the offense, to get to the point where the politician, in question, is allowed to move on and get back to the work that Americans elected them to do to create jobs, and (yawn) create a better and brighter tomorrow. The Packwood and Biden non-apology apologies may have provided the antecedent to the use of the non-apology apology as a method to advance an agenda or a political campaign.

At this point in history, a politician can say just about anything they want about an opponent, as long as they follow it up with something that resembles an apology. We’ve seen some politicians accuse their opponents of sexual harassment, racism, and even murder. If any form of substantial evidence arises to exonerate their opponent of that charge, the politician issues a non-apology apology retraction by saying, “I should’ve used different language,” or, after completing the yawn, “I now issue a retraction.” The damage to the opponent, they hope, is already done, and the non-apology apologizer can escape further scrutiny by saying, “Hey, I retracted that statement.” That’s great and all, but why didn’t you retract the charge from your initial statement? Did you base it on some idea that you and your handlers had for laying what political wonks call a depth charge in the minds of voters that, whether true or not, would affect their thoughts of the candidate at election time? How many opportunities did you, and your speechwriters, and your public relations people have before you issued that slanderous charge? How many drafts did you, and your aides, create before issuing the final product, and how many of your party’s higher ups had to give a thumbs up on your character assassination before you delivered it?

Why do they do it?

Is the Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, a sexist? Is he “Grabbing us (women) by the hair and pulling us back,” as the NY Daily News reports that DNC Chair, and Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz charged? Who cares, in the frame of the depth charge strategy, all that matters is that a seed of doubt is planted in women’s minds that Scott Walker, The Tea Party, and the Republican Party may be sexist, and that that depth charge will explode in their minds come election day.

If a person executes the bullet points of the non-apology apology, the authorities will grant a second platform from which the accused are supposed to apologize, retract, or regret their previous statement. Once those klieg lights flip on, the accused will say something like, “I shouldn’t have used the words I used,” as Ms. Wasserman Schultz said in her non-apology follow-up. She did not yawn after saying that, but she did increase the power of her depth charge. She said, “But that shouldn’t detract from the broader point that I was making that …” At that point, she proceeded to further condemn the Republican Party, Scott Walker, and The Tea Party as anti-woman, and “pulling women back by the hair” with different words.

Defenders might ask how can we know what’s in non-apology apologizer’s heart? How can we ever know if it’s sincere or not? As I stated earlier, there are three principles to an apology, “I was wrong, I’m sorry, and I will never do it again.” Ms. Wasserman Schultz didn’t cover any of these principles. She used the opportunity of the follow-up, precious airtime that all politicians seek, to strengthen her depth charge.

Lie Detectors

How many times, in one week, do politicians lie us to? How many times do politicians later retract that lie with a non-apology, apology? How many times do we allow them to get away with it by laughing off the lie with the notion that it’s a politician lying, and all politicians lie?

I discovered the lying tool early in life. For many that surrounded me, it was a “get out of jail free card”. I didn’t want to get in trouble for something, so I lied my way through it. I’m not sure if I was good at it, if I got any better at it, or if the people around me wanted to spare my feelings by saying that, they were onto me. Whatever the case was, I began lying a lot, until I entered a nun’s sixth grade classroom.

This nun introduced me to a powerful tool that curbed my habitual lying that the collective conscious may want to consider when listening to interviews with politicians: shame. This teacher informed me that lying was unacceptable in her presence, that my excuses for lying would fall on deaf ears, and that any non-apology apologies would enter into the judgment pool that followed. The only thing she would remember was the fact that I lied.

She didn’t just call me out once either. She called me out so often that I decided that I didn’t care for the reputation that I was developing. She didn’t even care that she was hurting my feelings when she called me out. She just informed me that I was at a crossroads in life and whatever decision I decided to make, in sixth grade, would affect the rest of my life.

Some could say that we now have the equivalent of my sixth grade teacher in two newspapers that have developed fact checkers to keep track of who is lying, who is engaging in half-truths, and who is telling the truth. After researching the statements that are being made, largely by politicians, in public forums, one newspaper has decided to provide a scorecard, a scorecard that the writer Glenn Kessler writes to score the “Truth behind the rhetoric.” The scores provided to the rhetoric range from a one-to-four Pinocchios, with a four Pinocchios score being awarded to the most egregious, premeditated lie a rhetorician can commit. The other newspaper provides a truth-o-meter that resembles a small, handheld Geiger counter that ticks from true, to mostly true, and false to mostly false, with a pants-on-fire score provided to those that engage in blatant falsehoods.

Why have the services these two newspapers provide become so indispensable to so many? There are obvious reasons for wanting to hold politicians accountable for their actions and words, but on another level, it suggests, through its very existence, that there is a need for increased scrutiny. There is a need, beyond that which regular news reports report, for a reputable news source to come out and say that that person in question is lying. Saying, or writing, that someone is lying has been deemed undignified in the halls of Washington and in most media venues. They are forced to use more descriptive words such as, “The president needs to walk it back,” or “I think the Senator was being a little disingenuous when he said …”  or even, “Perhaps the Congressman wasn’t thinking clearly, when he said …” It’s all colorful, creative language that pitter patters around the fact that, as The Dude in The Big Lebowski might have said, “The dude lied man!” As I said, it’s been deemed undignified to say such things, and it opens up a need for some journalistic enterprise to cut through all the clutter and just say, “The dude lied man!”

Saying slanderous things about your opponent in American politics is almost as old as America itself, as documented in William Safire’s book Scandalmonger. What is different, and something that even the brilliant politician Thomas Jefferson couldn’t see, were all the strategies that he could use in the discourse that follows the lie. He couldn’t know that lies, slander, and slanderous lies the he could use to prop up one’s campaign while diminishing another’s. To him, I can only guess, the apology was a serious retraction of everything said on the specific subject.

No nubile himself when it came to dirty campaigns, Jefferson would probably be shocked that the modern politician all but yawns when they issue an apology, or a retraction. He would probably be even more shocked that those that issue such “blanket” apologies now do so without fear of recrimination, or the scrutiny that should occur through further questioning.

If my sixth grade teacher were on the receiving end of these non-apology apologies, she would’ve grilled these politicians:

“What are you apologizing for? Did your lie affect anyone, and if it did would you like to take a moment to apologize to them now? Would you like to tell everyone what you’ve learned throughout this process?” She would then allow you to boil in your shame before adding: “I’ll give you a theme for your response: “I was wrong, I’m sorry, and I will never do it again.” 

The shame that Sister Mary Lawrence caused her talk show guests would either prevent her from ever getting a show, or any returning guests. Imagine, for a second, a world where every politician, sports figure, and celebrity feared the end of show commentary from this woman that called them out for their lies, their erroneous charges of a political opponent that they know is not true, and their plan of issuing a non-apology apology when the truth comes to light. Now imagine that she had some sort of Simon Cowell-type following that enjoyed watching her put high profile politicians through the ringer on her “lie of the day” portion of her interview. She would ask them her usual litany of questions and conclude it with her helpful, themed response. She wouldn’t have many returning guests.

What does it say about the process involving the incurious media, that they allow these people to lie and wave a non-apology apology wand and all is not only forgiven but forgotten? Moreover, what does it say about us that we allow it, and that we’ve now come to expect it to a point where their apology is mandatory and meaningless?



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