During the fallout from the Rush “Sandra Fluke is a slut and a prostitute” Limbaugh culture war battle, I got sucked into a Facebook back and forth with a guy who described himself as a right winger. Before you jump to conclusions, this back and forth didn’t descend into us calling each other names. Rather, it brought light (for me, anyway) the importance people place on apologies because my right winger sparing partner kept bringing up Bill Maher and Ed Schultz and how I should condemn them the way I was condemning Limbaugh. Long story short, I said that Schultz condemned himself and apologized (both on the air, and on the phone) to Laura Ingram for calling her “a right wing slut.” And Maher? Well, he called Sarah Palin a couple of rude words, but did so during a stand-up comedy act and not on the publicly regulated airwaves.
But this is a digression…
What I want to focus on is the worth of an apology because it’s supposed to be a big deal when someone apologizes for behavior or an act that causes another harm in some way.
For example, I utter a slur at you causing you to respond by being insulted, aggrieved, or emotionally distraught to the point that it has affected your psychological well-being and your ability to function normally when I’m around you. Let’s say you voice your displeasure at my choice of words, what the words implied about your character, and how it has affected your interaction with me. And let’s further say that I’m a fairly reasonable person whose use of humor is often laced with harmful words. I understand why you feel hurt and I offer an apology for insulting you.
Does my apology alleviate any harm done? I bring this up not only because of the Limbaugh/Sandra Fluke issue, but also because it kind of reminded me of a co-worker (who has since left the company I work for). This person was the office bully who would often shout, hurl insults, demean people, and do so publicly without any regard who heard what. Only when it threatened this person’s employment with the company did this person offer an apology for the unacceptable behavior. But the apologies were empty because this person would slip back into the same bullying behavior and there would be another dust up, another apology, and the cycle would start over. But the importance placed on the apology was a big deal for the upper managers. Why?
Well, after looking looking at a number of sites about what an apology means, it carries with it a legal admission of liability — which is why you rarely see politicians or business people offering apologies for behavior or acts. To do so means that you could be on the hook for your actions and could either pay hefty fines or even do jail time. Perhaps the apology by this individual for bullying shifted the legal liability from the company to the individual — which may be why it was a big deal for the upper managers.
Because no one wants to do jail time, nor pay any kind of fine, we now have the high art of the non-apology apology. To wit: “I regret that you feel offended by what I said.” Semantically, it’s shifting blame from me to you (if I’m the one offering the apology) by effectively saying “Get over it.” Alas, I think this kind of “apology” is becoming more common in both the workplace and the public sphere. It’s a PR move designed to give the appearance of being contrite, but does so by shifting blame from the bully to the victim or to another entity in order to deny any kind of responsibility.
Rush Limbaugh apologized for his word choice in calling Sandra Fluke a slut and a prostitute. But he’s still convinced that women who use birth control only do so because they want to have a lot of sex with many partners and want to get paid for doing so. In other words, women are still sluts and prostitutes, but not in the sense that he’s overtly calling them so.
What’s an apology worth? If we’re to take Limbaugh and my former co-worker as a measure, it’s clear an apology is worth nothing because it’s meaningless.