Too Soon for Apologies?

Catholic Social Ethics

I suspect that, until the character of our culture has changed, individual apologies will continue to be insufficient and inadequate.

The #MeToo movement, begun last year in the wake of several high-profile revelations of sexual assault and harassment, continues to raise awareness on the issue, and has also begun to take structural form through the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which provides financial assistance to women making sexual assault accusations, and through revisions to the sexual harassment policy on Capitol Hill, for example. Part of what marks this moment in time as different from other famous cases is its longevity. These are not cases that have coalesced around a single, powerful public figure, as they did for Clarence Thomas in 1991, Anthony Weiner in 2011 (and later in 2016), and even Roger Ailes as late as 2016. The list of harassers grows, and the kind of behavior brought into the spotlight ranges from the truly outrageous to the mundane.

In previous prominent cases, men accused of harassment and rape often either denied the allegations outright or stayed silent. Lately, the most common response has not been outright denial, though some of that (or subtle reframing) is present. Bill O’Reilly and Roy Moore both insisted on innocence; Kevin Spacey included a statement on his sexuality that seemed designed to move the conversation away from predatory behavior towards “privacy” and his sexual orientation. But most common of all is the apologetic public statement: Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, Matt Lauer, and more have all opted to attempt to soothe public outrage by offering statements that indicate contrition (if not quite admitting to guilt), learning, and change.

And following almost all of these statements comes an additional wave of thinkpieces analyzing, assessing, and evaluating the worth of the apologies. Mostly, the apologies are rejected out of hand as dropped out of a PR playbook, with no real sincerity behind them. I must admit that in my cynical moments, I agree — or at least, I suspect that any sincerity with which the apology began has been scrubbed out through the edits of lawyers, managers, and PR representatives.

Yet, what has struck me in the responses is how varied the expectations of an apology are. Critiques of the apologies range from contrasting tone with previous actions (Louis C.K.), to questioning bizarre non sequiturs (Weinstein), to a persistent caveat of being “misrepresented” (Lauer, and more). Some of the criticisms held in common are a lack of attention to the actual victims, or a lack of clarity on precisely what the apologizer will do to attend to victims’ needs.

What I think lies behind much of this commentary is a question of what it takes to “right the wrongs” that have been done — in other words, what is the role of an apology in the movement towards justice? And it may be startling to realize, as theologian Darlene Fozard Weaver has recently noted, that this topic has actually received little attention in Christian ethics.[1] Weaver’s work, by drawing on descriptive accounts of apologies from social science literature, illustrates that while the act of apologizing is “morally significant” (89-90), apologies are not necessarily morally good. Even as the examples I raised above indicate, apologies can be used to diffuse moral responsibility rather than embrace it, to redirect blame, and to change power dynamics. And yet to some degree they remain expected of offenders in the midst of scandal. As Weaver claims, “the most straightforward and important reason why apologies matter is because victims matter. Normatively speaking, apologies are for victims…They recognize the loss, harm, or offense the victim has undergone. An apology may not suffice for restitution or repair, but it can contribute to both” (90).

Weaver goes on to detail not only how high the standards are for achieving a “full” or “ideal” apology, but how one of the challenges in accepting an apology is in the relationship between the apology, the moral failure being apologized for, and the offender’s moral character. As expressions of contrition and a desire to change, apologies tend to place a distance between the person and the moral failure, but this is naturally difficult to accept when the failure seems to be an issue of character (Weaver, 94-96). This seems to be particularly salient regarding recent apologies for sexual misconduct: each of these offenders has shown a long, repeated history of moral failing. These were not one-off failings of judgement, but sustained practices of harassment and abuse.

This is not to say that apologies are necessarily insincere when they entail character failings. Rather, Weaver reframes the value of an apology as a part of the moral repair for the offender, rather than for victim. While socially and culturally, apologies are ideally meant to initiate some work of healing and repair for victims, that intent becomes more complex when the fraught relationship between a victim and the offender is taken into account. Especially with sexual misconduct, harassment, abuse, or assault, victims may not want the contact with an offender that an apology would seem to presuppose. Yet, Weaver argues, if the apology has come from a true act of conscience, they may nonetheless initiate some moral growth on behalf of the offender (101).

Which brings me to a final question that, perhaps, warrants more discussion and discernment in the public sphere. The apologies from people like Weinstein, Lauer, Louis CK, and more all fall short of ideal apologies in several ways, but perhaps the clearest limitation is that they inherently turn inward, while the broader #MeToo movement has been unrepentantly and admirably victim-focused. Weaver’s analysis indicates that this inner movement of an offender issuing an apology is a necessary part of the action; and to be fair, this would seem to be a necessary part of justice, too. Restorative justice does not leave the offender behind.

Nonetheless, there is good reason right now to continue foregrounding the voices of those who have been harmed. Part of what is occurring at this moment in time is not just uncovering the character of persons that perpetuate sexual harassment, but uncovering the character of a culture that enables and perpetuates sexual harassment. This makes the moral responsibility more diffuse, but no less real. It requires structural and social change, that moves beyond interpersonal reconciliation. I suspect that, until the character of our culture has changed, individual apologies will continue to be insufficient and inadequate.

[1] Darlene Fozard Weaver, “Apologies and Their Import for the Moral Identity of Offenders,” Journal Of The Society Of Christian Ethics 36, no. 1 (2016): 87-105.

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