Non-Apology Apologies

The law generally doesn’t do much to promote apologies.  They aren’t included in the panoply of remedies that judges can impose on unwilling parties.  Even if courts could order parties to apologize, the apologies probably would be of the unsatisfying tell-your-sister-you’re-sorry variety.

Professor Jonathan Cohen has written wonderful pieces on The Immorality of Denial, 79 Tul. L. Rev. 903 (2005) and The Culture of Legal Denial, 84 Neb. L. Rev. 247 (2005), describing how it has become “normal practice within our legal culture is for injurers to deny responsibility for harms they commit.”  When defendants settle lawsuits, they often include explicit language refusing to accept responsibility.

In our DR world, we appreciate the seemingly magical power of apologies to sometimes dissolve bitter conflicts, enable resolutions, and restore relationships.  Our colleagues Eric Galton and Lela Love collected many such stories in their wonderful book, Stories Mediators Tell.

It can be hard to give a good apology – and many people make a hash of it.  One of my favorite cartoons shows a couple with a woman who has a disgruntled expression on her face in response to the guy saying, “I thought it was a perfectly good apology especially considering that I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Donald J. Trump

This brings us to the subject of the “non-apology apology” in which people make statements that seem to be apologies but actually are evasions of responsibility.  It has become such a thing that there even is a Wikipedia entry for it.

Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump recently issued a classic non-apology apology in which he appeared to take responsibility for hurtful statements.  As described by the Washington Post:

“‘Sometimes in the heat of debate, and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don’t choose the right words or you say the wrong thing.  I have done that,’” Trump said, with a slight smile, during a campaign rally here.

“‘And believe it or not, I regret it.  I do regret it, particularly where it may have caused personal pain.  Too much is at stake for us to be consumed with these issues,’” he said.  “‘But one thing; I can promise you this: I will always tell you the truth.’”

Mr. Trump’s failure to identify the statements he was referring to or the people hurt undermined the credibility of his apology.  This was particularly perplexing considering the long list of his statements meriting apologies.

Ryan Lochte

Of course, many other people have given non-apology apologiesFor example, Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte initially gave what seemed like an inadequate apology when he said, “I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend — for not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of that early morning,”

One columnist wrote that he “still doesn’t get it.  His so-called apology was a lame, crisis-crafted statement that showed zero sincerity and no awareness of his affront to Brazil and, if anything, only added to the insult by continuing to suggest he’s somehow this country’s victim.”

A later statement by Mr. Lochte – “I was immature, and I made a stupid mistake.” – seemed more sincere and an effort to take responsibility.  However, it may have been too late to satisfy some people, especially considering that he seemed to excuse his behavior because he was intoxicated and he seemed to backtrack on his apology.  “‘It’s how you want to make it look like,’ Lochte said.  ‘Whether you call it a robbery or whether you call it extortion or us just paying for the damages, we don’t know.  All we know is that there was a gun pointed in our direction and we were demanded to give money.’”

Nate Parker

Another recent situation in the news involves film director, producer, and actor Nate Parker who is attracting attention due to his new film, The Birth of a Nation.

In 1999, he was a wrestler for Penn State and was accused of gang-raping a student.  Purdue Professor Roxanne Gay wrote a very sensitive essay about how she reacted to Parker and his recent statement of responsibility.

As she described: “What happened in 1999 is a familiar story:  college athletes, alcohol, a vulnerable woman and allegations of sexual assault.  The unnamed woman pressed charges against Mr. Parker and Mr. Celestin, claiming she was drunk, unconscious and unable to consent to sex.”

. . .

“Mr. Parker was acquitted, based partly on testimony that he and the victim had previously had consensual sex.  Mr. Celestin was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to prison, but the conviction was eventually overturned.  The victim, who sued Penn State because she said the university did not protect her from the harassment she endured after filing charges, received a settlement of $17,500.”

“Both Mr. Parker and Mr. Celestin now have families and successful careers.  They remain friends and collaborators.  The victim, well, she committed suicide in 2012 and left behind a young son.”

Prof. Gay writes, “Mr. Parker is being forced to publicly reckon with his past, and he is doing a lousy job.  I want to have empathy for him, but everything he says and does troubles me.  You see, what happened in 1999 was a ‘painful moment’ in his life.  Most of what he has to say about that ‘painful moment’ involves how he felt, how he was affected.”

Prof. Gay’s essay was written in response to an interview of Mr. Parker in Variety magazine.

He also released a statement in which he wrote that “I cannot – nor do I want to ignore the pain she endured during and following our trial.  While I maintain my legal innocence because the encounter was unambiguously consensual, there are things more important than the law.  There is morality;  no one who calls himself a man of faith should even be in that situation.  As a 36-year-old father of daughters and person of faith, I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom.”

“I look back on that time, my indignant attitude and my heartfelt mission to prove my innocence with eyes that are more wise with time.  I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name.  Empathy for the young woman and empathy for the seriousness of the situation I put myself and others in.”

Unfortunately, as Prof. Gay wrote, this is just one of many cases involving “college athletes, alcohol, a vulnerable woman and allegations of sexual assault.”  These cases are extremely difficult to analyze factually, legally, and morally.  People’s reactions to it – and Mr. Parker’s statement – probably are related to their reactions to this phenomenon generally, which prompts a variety of strong feelings.

I don’t have a good conclusion for this post other than to note that apologies are really important, some apologies are better than others, and people’s reactions to apologies vary based on the nature and severity of the wrongs, qualities of the apologies, and observers’ experiences and perspectives.

After reading the comments below, click here to read part 2 of this discussion.

7 thoughts on “Non-Apology Apologies”

  1. Timely and insightful posting. I had not followed the Nate Parker saga, which seems even more timely in light of the more recent regulatory and media focus on campus sexual assault. Ever so often, a multitude of public apologies comes down the pike reviving interest in the problem of apology. Although a public apology can be a sincere and “full” apology, I would argue that a “political” apology is a separate beast altogether. Trump’s apology is different from Nixon’s classic because he actually admits that he personally breached a norm and harmed others. Indeed he expresses regret. But, as the post points out, the failure to be more specific as to the nature of his harmful statements undermines the apology. More glaring is his failure to promise future forbearance. In fact, he hints that he will continue to say outrageous and harmful things. Moreover, he seeks justification by equating his previous statements with “truth.” Apologies are complex, but there are certain elements that are essential to an apology if it is to have any chance of invoking forgiveness. Cohen’s work in this area is great. Also see my piece with Erin O’Hara, On Apology and Consilience, 77 WASH. L. REV. 1121 (2002), for an evolutionary and economic analysis of apology.

  2. Thanks very much for your comment, Doug.

    You’re quite right that apology-like statements by politicians (and other public figures like Mr. Lochte and Mr. Parker) have different dynamics than those in private relationships that are delivered more personally. The stakes typically are a lot higher as there is public pressure to apologize and greater risks from being too candid. Public figures’ statements usually are out of their control to a large extent considering that they are filtered through mass and social media. This dissemination inevitably limits, distorts, and critiques these statements.

    The risks are illustrated by the fact that Mr. Lochte just lost three lucrative endorsement contracts. Who knows what would have happened if he handled the situation better?

    So I actually have some sympathy for public figures in these situations. Some people display good character by candidly owning up to their misdeeds while others compound their errors with cynical non-apology apologies. How they handle these situations is a real test of their character.

    Thanks for sharing the cite to your article, Doug. There is a significant literature on apologies and related phenomena and I encourage others to share other helpful publications.

  3. Here’s an article with another perspective on the Nate Parker situation by writer Cathy Young. She argues that, considering that Mr. Parker was acquitted of rape, he should not be treated as a rapist.

    Although Ms. Young’s article doesn’t address whether Mr. Parker’s statement was appropriate, it suggests that a (full) apology may not be necessary. From Mr. Parker’s perspective, he thought that he did not do anything wrong in his sexual encounter, and he felt vindicated by his acquittal in court.

    Under these circumstances, should there be (as great) an expectation of an apology?

    Of course, an acquittal in a criminal case may simply reflect limitations in the evidence and prosecution that do not result in a conclusion of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. So Mr. Parker may nonetheless have actually committed the alleged wrongful acts and/or be morally culpable. On the other hand, Ms. Young argues that the acquittal should count for something in the court of public opinion.

    Cases of sexual assault are particularly difficult because of problems of determining what actually happened and evolving standards of what’s acceptable or legal.

    Under all these circumstances, how much of an apology, if any, should be expected? Would your perspective in this case be different if Mr. Parker was not a public figure? Discuss.

  4. As a mediator and parent educator, I read this with great interest. What really got my attention was, “Even if courts could order parties to apologize, the apologies probably would be of the unsatisfying tell-your-sister-you’re-sorry variety.”

    I sometimes upset and shock parents in my workshops by discouraging them from forcing kids to apologize. I call their attention to the fact that we seldom hear adults give a spontaneous, heartfelt, unqualified apology. Most of the apologies we hear are “fauxpologies” (wish I could claim that term as my own; unfortunately, its creator seems to be lost in the cyber-mist):
    “Mistakes were made.”
    “I’m sorry I’m late…but (litany of excuses)”
    “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings” (i.e., “it’s too bad you’re an oversensitive clod”)

    Why would this be? Why are we so bad at apologizing? I have some ideas, which I share in my workshops. I note how often we hear someone say to a child, “You should be ashamed of yourself. You go right over there and apologize.” I point out the way we fuse apology with humiliation. (At this point, a few parents are squirming in recognition.) I wonder out loud whether being forced to apologize so much in childhood, and in a way that makes us feel diminished and embarrassed, actually stunts the development of fellow-feeling and remorse. After all, apologizing should make us feel better, not worse!

    We talk about ways to develop empathy in kids, to spot genuine remorse (a feeling that comes from within, as opposed to guilt, which is outside-in) and to coach apology-ready kids to offer a sincere expression of being sorry. I hope in this small way to help parents raise a generation of kids who know how to apologize.

  5. John Lande made an important point when he concluded by saying “some apologies are better than others, and people’s reactions to apologies vary based on…observers’ experiences and perspectives.” In Gary Chapman’s book, “The Five Languages of Apology,” he proposes that a person’s opinion of what a “true” or “real” apology looks like can be broken down into five schools of thought: (1) expressing regret (2) accepting responsibility (3) making restitution (4) genuinely repenting and (5) requesting forgiveness. The best approach to apologizing would include all five components to ensure that the apology was effective. The problem with only including one approach, like Mr. Trump (expressing regret), is that while he may sincerely believe he is apologizing, the majority of the public will view his words as a “non-apology apology” because the majority of the other apology components are missing.

  6. Thanks, Averi.

    Today, 21st Century Fox announced that it had settled Gretchen Carlson’s sexual harassment claim for a reported $20 million. Although she filed suit in court only against Roger Ailes, presumably to avoid the arbitration clause in her contract with Fox, the settlement was with Fox. Initial reports indicated that Mr. Ailes contributed to the settlement, although his lawyer denied it. It is not clear whether Ms. Carlson’s settlement with Fox covers the claim against Mr. Ailes.

    Fox issued a statement saying, “We sincerely regret and apologize for the fact that Gretchen was not treated with the respect and dignity that she and all of our colleagues deserve.” The statement included one by Ms. Carlson expressing satisfaction with Fox’s action.

    While Ms. Carlson apparently is satisfied (at least with the monetary settlement), how satisfied should the public be with Fox’s apology?

    Its statement, combined with a swift settlement, has all the earmarks of a public relations effort to get this controversy behind it.

    Considering the five factors that Averi mentioned, it is not clear how much Fox really accepted responsibility and genuinely repented.

    Of course, it can be hard for a corporation to do this considering the legal and financial consequences, especially in this case with all the allegations by other women against Mr. Ailes.

    A live, detailed statement by a top executive acknowledging at least some basic facts would be more convincing. But presumably Fox executives decided that its statement was best to minimize its PR “cost.” And I have seen commentary talking about how significant and unprecedented Fox’s statement is.

    Click here to read part 2 of this discussion.

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