News & Politics

Is There Such a Thing as a Good Public Apology?

In Trump's America, none of these statements seem to cut it.

Sen. Al Franken
Photo Credit: Flickr / Eric Austin

Sen. Al Franken issued a formal apology Thursday after television anchor Leeann Tweeden accused him of kissing and groping her without consent during a USO tour of the Middle East in 2006. (Initially he had claimed he didn't remember the incident the same way she had described it.) "I'm asking for an ethics investigation to be undertaken," Franken wrote, "and I will gladly cooperate."

But as FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver and others have pointed out, if there's photographic evidence of Franken's misconduct, and he mostly acknowledges Tweeden's charges as true, what exactly is an ethics investigation supposed to investigate?

Since a pair of reports from the New York Times and the New Yorker blew the lid off movie mogul Harvey Weinstein's alleged sexual abuse of more than a dozen women, American society has begun a transformation, the #metoo movement emboldening women to step forward with their own stories of being abused. Several public figures have been accused of predatory and even criminal behavior, most prominently comedian Louis C.K. and actor Kevin Spacey, and each has issued his own public apology, to mixed reviews. (Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who allegedly molested multiple teenage girls, maintains he's the victim of a liberal media conspiracy.) But what are these statements really saying, and what, if anything, can they accomplish?

Whatever their weaknesses, none of these apologies matches the sheer monstrosity of Harvey Weinstein's response to the New York Times' reporting. His callousness seems almost inconsequential in light of recent revelations the producer and studio head hired ex-Mossad agents to silence his accusers, but any apology that begins by suggesting the accused came of age in an era when sexual harassment and assault were more socially acceptable is no apology at all. The statement ends on a similarly ghastly note, with Weinstein vowing to take down Wayne LaPierre of the NRA and President Donald Trump.

Spacey's letter of apology is only nominally more compassionate. The Academy Award-winner acknowledges his respect for his alleged victim, Adam Rapp, but dismisses his own predation as "deeply inappropriate drunken behavior," as though a few screwdrivers were the motivation for assaulting a 14-year-old boy.

"I am sorry for the feelings he describes having carried with him all these years," Spacey follows. Note the syntax here. He neither assumes responsibility for the trauma he's inflicted, nor recognizes that pain as genuine; it is not experienced but "described." That he chooses this moment to announce he's living his life as a gay man is all the more confounding.

On the sliding scale of mea culpas, C.K.'s and Franken's apologies are both markedly better, communicating something approaching authenticity and contrition. (Their offenses, while unequal themselves, are also less severe.) Both figures take care to address their victims by name, and both assume full responsibility for their actions.

"These stories are true," writes C.K. of the allegations he masturbated in front of multiple women, and on the phone with another. Franken's statement opens on a similar note: "The first thing I want to do is apologize: to Leeann, to everyone else who was part of that tour, to everyone who has worked for me, to everyone I represent, and to everyone who counts on me to be an ally and supporter and champion of women."

Despite their merits, both apologies betray their authors' desire to preserve the public's perception of them, and in the case of C.K., his arrogance. On three occasions, the comedian reminds his readers he had earned his accusers' admiration, and separately that the comic community "looked up to him." Franken, meanwhile, presents himself as an advocate for women generally and sexual harassment victims specifically. "I respect women," he continues. "I don't respect men who don't. And the fact that my own actions have given people a good reason to doubt that makes me feel ashamed."

This is not to suggest there's anything inherently wrong with such a sentiment—there's not—or even that these kinds of apologies should not be made publicly—they should. One of the more alarming developments since the 2016 election is the continuing erosion of norms and standards, and these statements reaffirm the existence of a social contract, even if they're fundamentally performative and self-serving. None of these men issued an apology until after they were caught; C.K. repeatedly dismissed the charges as "rumors" in the past, while Weinstein employed a private detective agency to stalk his accusers. 

Donald Trump casts a long shadow over the post-Weinstein landscape, both the 16 women who have accused him of sexual misconduct and his absolute refusal to acknowledge their credibility. After the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape, in which the Republican candidate freely acknowledged his history of assault, the president issued a flaccid public apology of his own. 

“I’ve never said I’m a perfect person, nor pretended to be someone that I’m not," he said at the time. "I’ve said and done things I regret, and the words released today on this more than a decade-old video are one of them. Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am."

If this rupture in American democracy has taught us anything, it's that norms alone will not save us. In a more just country, a country we should strive to build, both Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey would be prosecuted, Louis C.K. would be driven from public life and Al Franken would resign—along with Donald Trump.

Jacob Sugarman is a managing editor at AlterNet.

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