Apology aversion also has a gender component, of course. “For some men,” Lerner said, “the very act of apologizing, of simply saying ‘I was wrong, I made a mistake, I’m sorry,’ may feel unmanly, uncomfortable, if not intolerable.”
One of the rare times Trump broke his own rule about apologizing—“I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize,” he said, after a recording of him bragging about assaulting women surfaced, just before the final debate of the 2016 election—he reversed course in the space of a few seconds, whatabout-ing his own contrition. “Bill Clinton has actually abused women and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed, and intimidated his victims,” Trump said. “We will discuss this more in the coming days. See you at the debate on Sunday.”
There is chaos in our accountabilities. Senator Al Franken, after being accused of kissing or groping eight women, resigned from office; Trump, after being accused by more than 20 women of abuses that range from harassment to rape, has faced no consequences at all.
I’m sorry, said sincerely, is supposed to be the first step toward forgiveness. But forgiveness is difficult to discuss when justice is so unevenly distributed—when there’s no meaningful consensus about who deserves redemption, or under what conditions.
And when humility gets confused with humiliation, defiance becomes a point of pride. The comedian Kevin Hart, after years-old homophobic tweets of his resurfaced late last year, chose not to apologize, saying, “I’m not going to do it, man. I’m going to be me. I’m going to stand my ground.” He stepped down as host of the 2019 Oscars because of it, only to apologize after the fact. The comedian Shane Gillis, after journalists discovered racist and homophobic material in his recent work, offered up, in part, this nonapology: “I’m a comedian who pushes boundaries. I sometimes miss … I’m happy to apologize to anyone who was actually offended by anything I’ve said.” He lost his newly announced job at Saturday Night Live. But he did not lose his career, as some of his defenders had claimed; days later, Gillis was back doing stand-up, making a performance of his own alleged victimhood, joking that he has “been reading every one of my death threats in an Asian accent.”
This is the sorry state of things. If you think of empathy as an inconvenience, it becomes easy to see remorselessness as an act of resistance. It becomes easy to dismiss the people who would prefer not to be discussed using slurs, or who would prefer not to be sexually harassed—people who have voices in ways they did not before—as purveyors of political correctness. It becomes easy to see apologies as weapons in a much bigger war. Louis C.K., who had once promised to listen and learn, found it preferable, in the end, to do the opposite. In his new act, he mocked and resented and seethed. He made a performance of his anger. And his audience cheered.
This article appears in the December 2019 print edition with the headline “No Apologies.”