When the Apology Makes It Worse

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Heading off to do his 30-day bid, Dharun Ravi "apologizes"


"I accept responsibility for and regret my thoughtless, insensitive, immature, stupid and childish choices that I made on Sept. 19, 2010, and Sept. 21, 2010," Mr. Ravi said. "My behavior and actions, which at no time were motivated by hate, bigotry, prejudice or desire to hurt, humiliate or embarrass anyone, were nonetheless the wrong choices and decisions. I apologize to everyone affected by those choices."
Probably the most grating portion here is the idea that Ravi was not trying to "humiliate or embarrass anyone." The facts of the case really say otherwise. But as I've said before you the justice system isn't really set up to punish people simply for not being honorable. There's obviously a legal argument against admitting any fault. 

But what strikes me about these kinds of apology (George Zimmerman's as well) is this desire to appear contrite, without taking on any of the actual weight of genuine contrition. Qualities like "immaturity," "stupidity," "childishness," and "insensitivity" can be chalked up to ignorance or biology. Whereas "hate" and "bigotry" have been moved into the realm of indelible moral stains carried only by those who sleep under bridges and eat people.

I have long thought of "racism without racists" as merely the product of the color-line. But it's also the result of the American--and perhaps even the human--inability to admit fault. No one wants to be wrong. It is a great failing, not simply of morality and honor, but of imagination. Being wrong is painful. It would be painful for Ravi to tell the world he actually was trying to humiliate a fellow human for his own ends. It would be painful to admit that he actually has tried to spy on people in the past. But people who can't admit to who they are, have little chance of ever becoming anything more.

There's been talk in comments on what some community service, and exposure to different worlds might do for Ravi. I would not count on it. Until you can say "I was wrong" without pausing to defend yourself, there really isn't much hope.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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