True Apology Demands the Ability to Say Only You Were Wrong

Posted: March 23, 2012 in apologies, apologize, Bill Maher, leadership, responsibility, Rush Limbaugh

Bill Maher indicated that Rush Limbaugh has apologized for his vile remarks about Georgetown Law Student Sandra Fluke in which he called her a “slut” and a “prostitute” for speaking up for her classmates who needed prescription birth control for cysts and other health issues, tweeting:

Hate to defend #RushLimbaughbut he apologized, liberals looking bad not accepting.

First of all, Bill Maher doesn’t recognize what an apology sounds like, as he never has to apologize for anything he says. As he points out, he has no sponsors for his television show, “Real Time With Bill Maher.”

But let’s not pretend that Maher is any kind of role model either. No one, and I mean no one, looks up to him as any kind of leader or quotes him like they do Rush Limbaugh or even, say, Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. Maher is a comedian, who is sometimes funny and who has a show on HBO that has guests who express both liberal and conservative political views. Yes, he can be crude, crass and juvenile and is often insulting to conservative women and men. Maher specializes pretty much in one-liners, which makes him a whole lot  different from Rush Limbaugh, who appears five days a week and can, and does, carry on his tirades against innocent young women for days.

We could argue about the differences between Maher and Limbaugh or whether Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann or Chris Matthews or Ed Shultz or Maher are more misogynist but let’s not. Let’s leave that conversation for another time. The issue is the apology, or the lack thereof, not so much what he said.

Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher are rarely on the same side of any issue but on this they are uniformly wrong, Rush Limbaugh did not apologize for his tirade against Sandra Fluke – and to the rest of American women he insulted. Ms. Fluke was right not to accept the so-called apology and so were the “liberals” Mr. Maher is so interested in rushing into acceptance of the apology.

Forget whether you felt offended by any of these men and focus only on the fact that there was supposedly an apology. Apologies are actions that are offered by one party because that party is acknowledging that he or she has hurt or otherwise offended the other party. It’s not something that’s supposed to be automatic, pleasant or defensive.

Apparently, we have a lot to learn about apologies and how they should be proposed. I say proposed because there is something we need to understand about apologies. We can propose an apology but the other party doesn’t have to accept it.

Just saying that you apologize and that your apology is sincere doesn’t make it so. There have been a number of recent public examples of what are claimed to be but are not apologies. Mr. Limbaugh’s is but one.

As has been pointed out by others, Rush Limbaugh said his choice of words were not the best. He said he thought listeners would understand that that his schtick was satire. He said he was sorry he descended to the level of the  the leftists. Although he said his apology was sincere he never apologized for distorting the facts of her testimony or for saying that she was “having so much sex it’s amazing she can still walk” or for implying – during his apology – that she deserved derision because of her history as a gender activist.

His apology basically boiled down to, as the late, great comedian Flip Wilson used to say, “the Devil made me do it.”

He felt no remorse for his actions. He exhibited no regret for his words. He did not acknowledge the hurtfulness of the events he set into motion.

As much as it hurts to do it, apologizing preserves your dignity as well as that of the other person. When properly done, they force you to swallow your pride and act with grace and humility.

When I’ve had to apologize to someone, I’ve always had this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that I suspect comes from the combination of shame I feel from what I am apologizing for and the fear I feel that the person I am apologizing to will not accept my apology. I feel the apology. It is not something I do for show and it is something I would really rather not do. It’s about repairing the injured party not about making me feel better.

It is important to note that an apology requires one to take full responsibility for the offense. This modern-day excuse for an apology is not acceptable: “If I offended you (or anyone) I’m sorry.” That’s a coward’s way out. Either you’re sorry or you’re not. When you phrase it that way, you’re not. When you share the blame with the person you’re apologizing to or with anyone else or if you try to offer mitigating circumstances, it’s an excuse not an apology. An apology with an excuse is simply not an apology.

Take full responsibility for what you did. If you say, “I’m sorry if” or “I’m sorry but” then you haven’t taken responsibility. You’re placing the blame somewhere else.

I’ve seen two really good apologies from unexpected places recently; one from Keith Olbermann and one from a man some would call a racist Montana federal judge.

Olbermann seemed genuinely perplexed that comments he had made in the past were being compared to Limbaugh’s and deemed misogynistic rather than merely mean but he apologized anyway and swore to do better in the future.

“I’m going to try to raise my standard about not using gratuitously abusive remarks about women, and men,” he said. “In fact, I’m going to suspend the Worst Persons segment again, possibly permanently.”

His apology isn’t enough for many conservatives, including conservative commentators S.E. Cupp and Michelle Malkin, to whom he is apologizing but remember your responsibility is to make the apology. You can’t force anyone to accept it.

Richard Cebull, Montana’s chief federal judge, apologized to President Barack Obama for emailing a joke from his federal email that suggested that the President’s mother had had sex with a dog and that the President is lucky that he is human. The apology letter (attached) actually seems heartfelt. H e assumes responsibility and blames no one but himself for his actions.

“Please forgive me and, again, my most sincere apology,” Judge Cebull wrote.

We don’t know how the President felt or responded, but several advocacy groups and lawmakers have called for Cebull’s resignation in the interests of fairness and justice. That seems fair. Given that the man’s job is to dispense justice to everyone no matter their race or politics, his action has cast doubt on whether he is able to do that. His self-identification as a Tea Party member who disagrees with the President’s policies and who emailed what he knew was a racist joke seems reason enough for the community as a whole to reject his apology. Judge Cebull doesn’t know what else he can do beyond apologize. He can resign.

Implicit in an apology is the fact that you really mean it. If you don’t then don’t say it because you’ll find yourself in Limbaugh’s position. No one will believe it. Remember, sometimes you can mean it and an apology is not enough.

The reason we have such a hard time making a proper apology is we’ve come to think of apologies as bad things. They’re not. We make them when we make mistakes. For example no one would take offense at someone saying, “I’m sorry I accidentally stepped on your foot.” But if a group of U.S. soldiers accidentally burn a bunch of holy Qurans, we’re incensed if the President says “I’m sorry we made a mistake.” GOP Presidential Candidate Rick Santorum during an interview said at least seven times that the burnings were unintentional or a mistake but that the United States should not have apologized because the burnings were a mistake and apologies show weakness.

Understand this. Apologies are a sign of strength. A true leader, a true human being can apologize; without reservation, without excuse, without equivocation, without blame. We should respect people who can take responsibility for their actions, pledge to do better in the future and make every attempt to follow through on that promise. Anyone who does otherwise is merely a pretender and not worthy of our attention or our respect.
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