As a scholar who has written about the art of the public political apology, I found the whole episode fits into a larger pattern of nonapology apologies in the modern political landscape.
‘Sorry’ seems the hardest word
An apology, according to the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman, is “a splitting of the self into a blameworthy part and a part that stands back and sympathizes with the blame giving.” Goffman goes on to say that after an offense has occurred, the job of the person apologizing is to show an understanding of the norm violated and the harm done.
What this means in practice is that offenders must identify what they did wrong and then demonstrate that they take responsibility for that wrong, that they accept the blame. To be a true apology this has to be accompanied with some sincerity and with a sense of how the offender will act differently in the future.
If a public apology includes these four elements – naming the harm, taking responsibility, sincerely accepting blame and committing to act differently – then it can help repair a relationship or even save a reputation.
Even if we are to take McCarthy’s word that an apology occurred in Greene’s case, we are none the wiser as to which parts of her embrace of conspiracies she had said sorry for.
The day after the Republican conference meeting, Greene took to the floor of the House of Representatives and characterized her past posts in this way: “These were words of the past and these things do not represent me, they do not represent my district and they do not represent my values.”
She went on say that she had “stumbled across” QAnon and “was allowed to believe things that weren’t true, and I would ask questions about them and talk about them. And that is absolutely what I regret.”
So, was this an apology?
Whether Marjorie Taylor Greene has met the criteria established by Goffman is, at best, open to interpretation.
But she isn’t alone – good public apologies seem rare today.
‘Mistakes were made’
Part of the difficulty has to do with the loss of standards held in common by a community. For a scholar like Goffman, it was taken for granted that an apology reflected common norms of behavior.
Gone are the days when Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy could agree, as they did in their second debate in 1960, that the United States should apologize when it is wrong, as when a long-planned Paris summit in 1960 collapsed after it was revealed the U.S. had covered up spy-plane flights over the Soviet Union. They naturally disagreed about whether the U.S. was in the wrong, but they agreed that apology was sometimes necessary.
Nixon went on to become an expert in the art of the nonapology, as seen in his response to the Watergate scandal. His “mistakes were made” approach, which uses a passive voice to avoid laying the blame directly on oneself, was later adopted by others, including Ronald Reagan over the Iran-Contra affair.
Today’s culture is too fractured for most public figures to risk a full-fledged apology. In the U.S., gerrymandered districts, continual fundraising appeals to a base, hyperpartisan media and a polarized electorate have conspired to deliver an environment in which apologizing is fraught with concerns. If one apologizes, it signals a backtracking to the base one is courting. If one refuses to apologize, that rallies supporters and donors.
In such circumstances, it is hard to admit you are wrong much less that you have behaved badly. In such an environment, it is perhaps understandable why Greene’s apology was behind closed doors and not delivered in public.
The death of the public apology has been long in the making. It fits an approach best exemplified by Nathan Brittles, a character played by actor John Wayne in the John Ford Western “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.” The 1949 film popularized the expression “Never apologize – it’s a sign of weakness,” which has become the slogan of a type of public toughness over the past half-century. Ironically, that slogan is misunderstood; Nathan Brittles takes responsibility for the failure of his mission in the movie. The line should be “Never make excuses – it’s a sign of weakness.”
This (mis)understanding of the apology as a sign of weakness has certainly been the mantra of Donald Trump for many years. The former president’s style was to attack and insult, playing effectively to a base, and never say sorry.
In the absence of public apologies from elected political leaders, perhaps it is better to look to the military, like the fictional Capt. Brittles, for outward signs of contrition.
While Trump avoided taking responsibility over failings in the response to the coronavirus pandemic, the four-star general heading the government’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine program, Gustave Perna, was more accountable.
Perna took responsibility for how errors in the projections of COVID-19 vaccines to be distributed resulted in states getting fewer doses than they had been promised.
“I want to take personal responsibility for the miscommunication. I know that’s not done much these days. But I am responsible. And I take responsibility for the miscommunication,” he said, adding, “I failed. I am adjusting. I am fixing. And we will move forward from there.”
That apology names the harm, takes responsibility, accepts blame and commits to doing better. And it was delivered in public, in stark contrast to Greene’s expressions of regret.
Edwin Battistella is professor of linguistics at Southern Oregon University. This piece originally appeared in The Conversation, a nonprofit news source dedicated to unlocking ideas from academia for the public.