The problem with public apologies

At some point in recent history, conventions regarding public apologies became fixed. Whether it be Dominic Grieve apologising for suggesting “endemic” corruption in the Pakistani community or Peaches Geldof apologising for tweeting the names of mothers of children involved in an abuse case, there is a common pattern to public apologies; they all focus upon the offence which one’s behaviour has caused. A public apology is principally a matter of expressing regret or sorrow for causing offence. Everything else is usually window dressing.

Perhaps the most striking thing about these apologies is how unnatural they sound. If you swear at a friend in a moment of anger, you are unlikely to apologise by declaring yourself “sorry for causing offence”. And indeed, there is a very good we do not normally speak in this way; such declarations are actually not apologies at all.

At the very least, an apology is an admission of culpability, an admission of having done something wrong/incorrect/blameworthy – though there are a number of normative terms which can be employed here, each will signify that one acted as one ought not to have.

Unfortunately however, being sorry for causing offence does not amount to an admission of this sort. That is, “I am sorry for causing offence” does not mean “I have done something wrong”

An act can be worthy of blame without it offending anyone (consider an unnoticed theft), and an act can cause offence without being blameworthy. For example, homophobes may well be upset and yes, offended, by public displays of affection between gay men. But it does not follow from this fact that such activity would be blameworthy. Causing offence is not a good proxy for culpable behaviour.

Far from amounting to an admission of culpability, in speaking of causing offence public apologies cleverly shift focus from the perpetrator of the act to the patient. Causing offence is a matter of how others react – you cannot cause offence unless others take the behaviour to be offensive. As such “I’m sorry for causing offence” is on a par with expressions of regret for other reactions such as, “I’m sorry you didn’t like my cooking” or “I regret that my accent irritates you”. At best, these are expressions of pity and sympathy for someone’s plight, not admissions of blameworthiness. In other words the problem is you, not me.

Of course, herein lies the attraction of ‘causing offence talk’ for those apologising. It allows the unrepentant off the hook. It allows them to go through all the motions of a solemn and penitent public apology without losing any face, without admitting to being in the wrong. These ‘apologies’ are cop-outs par excellence. Perhaps the real question is why we are so accepting of such empty offerings.

Indeed, these apologies are so empty that they are increasingly issued by those who have nothing to apologise for. At half-time during a recent England qualifier, manager Roy Hodgson told a joke which some individual proceeded to anonymously leak to the press with the suggestion of racism. Despite commentators agreeing that the joke was not racist and clearly uttered without any blameworthy intent, Hodgson nevertheless hastily apologised for any offence caused.

Hodgson was not admitting that he had done something wrong or that he was deserving of blame (he clearly wasn’t). Instead, the apology was a rather mindless attempt at appeasement. The aim was to pacify any upset caused in the same way that one might pacify a child who has thrown their toys out of a pram: never mind whether you have done anything wrong or have anything to apologise for, just appease them and appease them quickly. This is what empty apologies inevitably become: unthinking sops to personal sentiment.

It is easy to see why empty apologies appeal to those apologising, but there is no reason why the rest of us need accept this charade. If you have something to apologise for, then apologise properly, and if you don’t, then don’t. Simple.

David Kirkby is a researcher at the think tank, Bright Blue. He tweets @KirkbyDJ