Behind the celebrity apology: Why so many are so bad

An expert breaks down why Jonah Hill's worked, and why most politicians' do not

Published June 5, 2014 5:53PM (EDT)

Jonah Hill  (Joel Ryan/Invision/AP)
Jonah Hill (Joel Ryan/Invision/AP)

After being caught on-camera calling a paparazzo a homophobic slur, what was supposed to be a media blitz to promote "22 Jump Street" has, instead, turned into a kind of makeshift apology tour for actor-comedian Jonah Hill. But, of course, Hill is hardly the first public figure — entertainer or otherwise — who has found himself in the unwelcome position of having to admit to millions of people that he acted like a jerk. It's not exactly a rite of passage in the process of celebrity, but it's close.

Hoping to better understand what, exactly, distinguishes a good public apology from a bad one, Salon recently spoke with Edwin Battistella, a professor of linguistics and writing at Southern Oregon University and the author of a new book, "Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology." Along with a discussion of why public apologies are so vital to a healthy democracy, our conversation touched on public apologies from Hill, Mel Gibson, Bill Clinton and others. The interview can be found below and has been edited for clarity and length.

So are there different kinds of apologies?

Yes, there are. There are instrumental apologies, which are really just meant to bring an issue to some closure. There are morally strong apologies, where someone really owns what they’ve done and explores the harm. And then there are various types of apologies that you could classify by who makes them and the type of language they use. So, for example, there are conditional apologies, where someone uses a kind of verbal judo and says something like, "Well, I apologize if you’re offended."

Those "I'm sorry if" apologies seem especially prevalent lately. In your research, did you find that this has always been a favored move or is this something that's more common lately?

I found some early examples of that sort of thing — and I haven’t counted up numbers of apologies by year, because I’m sure I’ve missed some — but it does seem like there are more of those sorts of apologies lately. It’s become almost a verbal tic among public figures. Maybe it’s got something to do just with the fact that we have more awareness of what public figures are saying in the around-the-clock news cycle and more attention is being paid to their misbehaviors, but [it] certainly seems to be increasing. Still, it’s been around for a long, long time.

Is there a hierarchy of apologies, then?

There are a couple of hierarchies. There’s a kind of linguistic hierarchy where to say, "I apologize for treating you so badly last week" is a fairly explicit speech act where you identify what you did and you actually say ,"I apologize." And then the words "sorry" and "regret" imply apologies that don’t make an explicit speech act. So I can say, "I’m sorry that that happened" or "I regret that I did that" where maybe I’m apologizing, maybe I’m just feeling bad and lamenting [over] something. Those are weaker ways of doing it.

And then there are ways of asking for an apology without even going that far, just saying something cursory like, "Sorry about that" or "my bad" or even asking someone to forgive you. If [you] say, "Forgive me," as you often find in apologies where people don’t want to discuss what they’ve done, you’re asking to go right to the forgiveness stage of an apology without actually naming what you did wrong or saying that you did anything wrong.

You make a distinction between "I'm sorry" and "I apologize." How come?

There’s a whole grammar [theory] behind it we can go into, but basically, if you say, “I’m sorry,” you’re reporting on an emotional state or mental state, and that can be ambiguous ... So if I call you up and you’re not in, someone might say, "Well, I’m sorry he’s not here." They’re not apologizing for your not being there, they’re just sort of regretting that to [you]. But if I say, “I apologize,” it’s unambiguous — I’m the one doing some speech act. So “apologize” is a performative verb like "I bet" or "I nominate" or "I name" or "I christen this ship" whereas “sorry” or “regret” sort of report what you’re feeling.

To some degree “I’m sorry” makes it all about you.

Yes, exactly.

Whereas with “I apologize,” you’re placing the focus on the other person.

You’re actually doing something. It’s hard to apologize without — it’s a little bit harder to apologize [while] having to say what you’ve done.

Let's look at some specific public apologies. Jonah Hill, for example, recently got in trouble for using a homophobic slur while yelling at a paparazzo, and his subsequent apologies have gotten a lot of praise. What did you think of his apologies?

I thought they were interesting. At first, I thought he was going to give a very weak, unconvincing apology because he began a little bit weakly with a sort of a justification and then tried to bolster his own credentials as a gay activist — I think at one point he talked about being a gay activist from birth, which made me laugh a little bit. But as he got into the discussion, his apology got better, and that actually gave him some additional credibility for me because it didn’t have the feel of something that was a canned presentation. He was really kind of thinking it through, it felt like. What struck me in particular was that he doesn’t really ask for forgiveness the way that sometimes politicians do. Instead, he kind of commits to "Use me as a bad example." He doesn’t ask people to really forget about it, he asks them to remember he did this. That struck me as the right thing for him to do, ethically. It was an apology that got better as he went, and he implicitly commits to not doing this sort of thing again.

I think the next step for him is to take this to the LGBTQ community and get some sort of response from them. He's in the sort of situation where he can put this ... playground hate-speech behind him. He can make it clear that he is committed to not thinking this way.

All right, so let's now compare that to some of the political public apologies you focus on in the book. You lead with President Harry Truman's apology to the Marine Corps League. What was that situation and how did Truman handle it?

It was during the Korean War, and the Marine Corps wasn’t yet on the Joints Chief of Staff and the Marine Corps League — that’s the civilian group made up of former Marines and so on — and a number of congressmen were lobbying for that to happen. Harry Truman was upset about this and he sent an angry letter to a congressman saying, “The Marine Corps will remain the Navy’s police force as long as I’m president, and they’ve got a propaganda machine equal to Stalin” — something to that effect. Truman being Truman, [he] put this into a letter to the congressman who then read it into the Congressional Record a couple of days before the Marine Corps League’s annual convention. So there were demands for an apology from Truman and he wrote a letter to the commandant of the Marine Corps ... saying, "I apologize for my intemperate words," basically.

Then, a couple of days later, Truman actually went to the Marine Corps League in-person and said something like, "I made a mistake; I try to make as few of them as possible and I try to correct them when I do." It was widely treated as a good apology that had quelled the issue, and a couple of months later, Truman was inducted as a civilian member of the Marine Corps League. So they forgave him for his "intemperate language" even though he never apologized for the sentiment behind it.

Right, so, he never actually apologized for believing that the Marine Corps League is Soviet-like in its propaganda. 

Exactly. He apologized for his "intemperate language" — that was how he played it. But he sort of stuck to his guns about the idea that they shouldn’t be lobbying for representation on the Joint Chiefs, so he sort of split hairs a little bit but was able to put the issue behind him. You find a lot of apologies like that, where someone apologizes for part of an offense but doesn’t really go into [a] full explanation of the issue because it’s not convenient [for them]. And sometimes that’s sufficient, other times it’s not.

For Truman that was enough, but can you think of a time when that wasn't the case?

I think one of the times when it wasn’t was when Mel Gibson went into his anti-Semitic tirade after being stopped for drunk driving. He issued a very poor morning-after apology in which he apologized to the police for his behavior, and then apologized to “anyone else who was offended.” And the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement saying it wasn’t a proper apology. A month later, Mel Gibson came back again with another apology that, while still not a perfect apology, explored the issue of his hate-speech in enough detail that the Anti-Defamation League said, “This is the apology that we hoped to receive.” Often, apologies are a two-step process where someone issues a weak self-serving apology, it’s not accepted, and they have to go back and reconsider and really explore what they did wrong a little more explicitly, with a little more contrition. You saw that with Bill Clinton as well with the Lewinsky scandal.

How so?

His first apology was a very lawyerly; an "I regret this happened, I take responsibility, I’m sorry I misled people, even including my wife" kind of apology. And the second one was made basically to a group of religious leaders, where he used religious language, talked about his path to redemption, explained that he hadn’t been contrite enough before, and that he hoped with more work and reflection to restore his soul and be forgiven. I’m not quoting it verbatim, but that was the gist of it, and that was a much more effective apology. If you look at the Op-Eds after each of those statements, you get a much different tone in the reaction to what Bill Clinton said.

Your book doesn't just look at politicians' apologies, but it occurs to me that, more than is the case in entertainment or another public venue, apologies are really vital and necessary within politics because the idea of accountability is so central to self-government. If our leaders don't take accountability and apologize for something when they've done wrong, it makes it much harder for voters to know whom to hold accountable.

I think you’re right, I think accountability is a large part of it. Because politicians, as opposed to say entertainers or corporate figures — where, in a corporation, things are much more hierarchical; in an entertainment industry, it’s a much more broadcast, fan-based sort of thing — but politics is an area where there’s an interpersonal part of it, politicians have to interact with each other, and there are no end to opportunities to offend people of your own party or of the opposing party with what you say or do. There’s also a public aspect to it, where you’re constantly speaking and there are opportunities for all sorts of misspeaking. And then there’s a governing aspect to it, where you’re really responsible for the nation. So, for example, when the Senate apologized for using the filibuster to prevent anti-lynching laws, it was an opportunity for them to use their authority to say, "Well, we’re a different type of Senate than the one that was operating in the '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s. We’ve changed." I think [they made] a kind of powerful moral statement. So, in politics, there’s the sort of broadcast aspect of it in speeches, there’s the interpersonal aspect, and there’s the historic moral wrong aspect of national issues.

Can you think of any other high-profile political apologies that you found noteworthy, either for how good or how bad they were?

One of the other recent ones — it’s not in the book because it’s really recent — was Gen. Eric Shinseki’s apology [about mismanagement at the VA] and it was sort of a classic military apology where someone actually resigns over an issue, rather than trying to do the wrong thing by hanging on. I thought [Shinseki's] was a cut above the usual political apology because he resigned along with it, and took that accountability step.

I was less impressed by Chris Christie’s apology for the New Jersey bridge scandal ... He basically used all the right words — “I apologize” — but he never took any personal responsibility. He apologized for not knowing what was going on, rather than what happened; so it was a failure to name the problem. That was a fairly weak apology, I thought.

To take your point even further, Christie spent chunks of that press conference-cum-apology portraying himself as one of the victims.

Yeah, it was much more like Bill Clinton’s first apology — "I apologize because this happened, but I don’t know what it was, but I’m apologizing because I have to."

This makes me think of Anthony Weiner's apology for being such a lothario. What'd you think of his apology?

His was also weak. He asked for forgiveness, he apologized for letting down his family, but he never really said what he did was wrong, and I guess he did it again after that. He never quite got to the step of saying, “I did this and it was wrong.” It was more, "I’m sorry I embarrassed my family, I’m sorry I let people down." Mark Sanford’s apologies were similar — "I’ve let a lot of people down; let me throw out another apology to my staff." He treated it both casually and vaguely.

If I remember correctly, he actually at one point compared himself to King David.

It was someone who knew he had to apologize but wasn’t quite able to talk about what he had done in a coherent way.

Let's turn away from the resigned and/or disgraced and look at another recent high-profile apology: President Obama's for when wasn't working and people were having their healthcare plans canceled and replaced with other, often more-expensive ones instead.

Yeah, I didn’t include this in the book because it was a little too late, but if I remember correctly, he said something like, "A lot of people lost their coverage based on assurances from me; I regret that."

My memory is that it was a little Clintonian, lawyerly.

The way I remember this is [that] he said something like that and, later on, he characterized it as an apology. So, maybe it was the next day in an interview, he said, "I said I’m sorry this happened." First he offered regrets for something that happened and then later on he characterized those regrets as an apology, but he never really apologized in the way that, say, [previous] presidents have apologized for things that happened ... It’s not the sort of apology you got for the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, where Bill Clinton was very eloquent and detailed in the apology. It was much more of an “I’m sorry that happened” or "I regret that that happened." It was much more of the kind of apology you’d get from a corporation rather than a person.

It seems worth noting that the examples you've found of really good political apologies are, mostly, apologies for things that the apologizers themselves didn't actually do.

Yes, or things that are fairly minor that they did. I’ve noticed that Obama tends to rely on regret a lot rather than apologize or [say] sorry; but, again, it’s not something that I’ve counted up.

Another overarching thing I've taken away from your book is that, really, a good apology is about recognizing the humanity of the person or people to whom you're apologizing. Recognizing their hurt is real, legitimate and that it matters.

Exactly. That’s where the social and the moral come together, is in acknowledging that common humanity.

And, on the political side, a clear takeaway is that, by and large, it's a good idea to just make a sincere apology. It seems like the folks who get themselves into trouble are those who try to sneak out of really apologizing, often only to have to make a second or third apology later.

You see this over and over again: People will plead to a lesser offense and then, two weeks later, it will turn out, "Oh, there’s more bad stuff that I did" and then they’ve not only wasted that first opportunity to apologize, but they’ve lost the credibility that their apology might have ... Since starting on this book, I’ve noticed myself apologizing better and more often, even for sort of small things that I’ve done. And it makes a tremendous difference in how people respond if you give a sort of brushed-off apology, or if you say, "I’m sorry I was late for the meeting; I was being inconsiderate," where you sort of own the offense a little bit more.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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