(AP/Eric Charbonneau)

Matt Damon is sorry if you're offended: How the righteous non-apology of Socrates became the tool of weasely PR

Damon's faux-pology for whitesplaining on "Project Greenlight" is a power move, not an admission he was wrong

Paula Young Lee
September 17, 2015 8:35PM (UTC)

Mistakes were made. I’m sorry that offense was caused. The passive voice is being abused. It’s not my fault!

These are the flowers of the non-apology apology: the art of using of words to make semi-convincing noises, in the manner of a spouse caught advertising for a threesome on Craigslist, or a presidential candidate confessing during last night’s Republican presidential debate that he smoked pot in high school. “Sorry mom,” Jeb Bush tweeted.


Why apologize now for something that took place four decades ago? Jeb will not be grounded. He will not lose his car privileges. He even knows that his mom, Barbara Bush, won’t be angry with him about the 40-year-old pot smoking incident, but will probably object to the fact that he’s telling America about it (again) for no particularly good reason. Except, perhaps, to appear an honest man, as opposed to actually being one.

I’m "sorry that it has raised all these questions," Hillary Clinton non-apologized for her use of a private email server.

In England, Lord Rennard “hereby expresses his regret for any harm or embarrassment caused to them or anything which made them feel uncomfortable,” regarding sexual harassment claims brought forward by four women.


“I apologize if I've offended more people than I usually offend,” said Rex Ryan, then head coach of the New York Jets.

The fault is always yours. Sometimes the offense is just in the air, the product of nebulous collective permissiveness, the moralizing opposite of which is the “devil made me do it.” This variant has made a comeback, having recently been used by Josh Duggar in several instances. But regardless of their precise wording, these non-apologies are nearly always followed by…nothing. Which is to say, by a peculiar lack of accountability followed by vast clouds of cultural amnesia.

By way of comparison, the first documented non-apology is Plato’s version of the trial of Socrates, who stood accused of teaching philosophy to young men.


Socrates: Every Athenian improves and elevates them [the young people of Athens]; all with the exception of myself; and I alone am their corrupter? Is that what you affirm?

Meletus: That is what I stoutly affirm.

Socrates: I am very unfortunate if you are right.

In other words, sorry/not sorry. For his non-apology, Socrates was put to death.

A drastic punishment, to be sure, but the non-apology used to be the issue of righteous men fighting corrupt systems and therefore truly dangerous to the status quo. From their mouths came the refusal to capitulate to reigning powers: the eppur si muove of Galileo v. the Inquisition, the fiery Gascon in the "Three Musketeers" offending the king of England by handily tossing his men. Today, the non-apology reverses the cultural alignment: it sides with the powerful, defending existing social hierarchies in order to quash the voices of the oppressed.


The love child of a litigious society married to the cult of shamelessness, the non-apology is seemingly on the rise in public discourse. In order to apologize convincingly, one must feel remorse. Preferably genuine, along with sharp twinges of guilt. Yet as long as there is money to be made by brash & swagger, remorse is terribly unhip, as demonstrated by the recent case of the internet personality known as the Fat Jew, who’d been stealing his material from working comedians. When they angrily called him out for creative theft, he shrugged and blamed them for being unable to take a joke, har har, and proceeded with business as usual. Naturally, his millions of fans still side with him.

Non-apologies issued in the service of image control have spawned an entire lexicon. “Only loosely or ironically can utterances like these be called apologies,” notes Stan Carey for Slate. “So other words have emerged to occupy the semantic niche: non-apology, nonpology, notpology, nopology, fauxpology, unapology, unpology, pseudo-apology, if apology, false apology (also fake, hollow, conditional apology, etc.)”

The fullest non-apology of the week comes from actor Matt Damon, whose PR people evidently made him issue a response to the furor over the season premiere of “Project Greenlight”--an episode that shall be forever remembered as “that time Damon mansplained diversity to Effie Brown, a Black female producer.” I daresay that “Project Greenlight” has its idealistic heart in the right place, but as the co-creator of that show, Damon can’t claim that he’s just a white guy being cast (passively, by forces beyond his control) to play yet another white guy in a big-budget extravaganza, aka a Martian heroically colonizing the Red Planet via the magic of Hollywood. Damon’s non-apology gifted us with two bonuses: not only did he inadvertently demonstrate to skeptics that yes, whitesplaining is a thing, but he Columbused the diversity conversation by affirming that he “started” it. To cap it all off, he’s still not grasping why his remarks pissed off “some people” in the first place. At least he avoided saying “you people.”


First of all, “diversity” is not about insisting that only a Black director can direct Black characters, a form of Balkanization based on defensive notions of tribal purity (otherwise called “staying in your lane” combined with tokenism.) It’s about ameliorating a state of socio-cultural homogeneity embodied by the dazzling white maleness of his cast, which unselfconsciously reinforces a narrow and ultimately sterile worldview that ignores the shadows inextricably connected to it.

Making matters worse, he used a line straight from the Mad Lib non-apology playbook: “I’m sorry that they offended some people,” this being a sentence containing the words, “I” “sorry” “offended,” in that order, leaving the specifics to be filled in later. I’m sorry you ______________  (feel that way/disagree with me/hate my guts, etc.) because my _____________ (ego/chauvinism/obliviousness) offended you (but your feelings have nothing to do with me and everything to do with you and your hypersensitive, reactionary refusal to suck it. )

This response is akin to the feudal lord saying to his serfs, “’Tis a pity your bellies grumble,” and galloping off with their harvest. After all, that crop is his legal due. The lord is doubtless sincere in his sorrow, but what does their hunger have to do with him? Nothing at all. If they are hungry, they should eat. Nobody is stopping them.


This is why the non-apology typically infuriates, because it illuminates the asymmetry of protest. On the one hand, we like to believe that the rich and powerful heed the clamoring of the masses, the sheer numbers of which work to hold those in power accountable for their offenses. On the other hand, the non-apology shows that We the People can be mightily vexed, yet taking umbrage doesn’t budge the power structure one bit. It just produces a non-apology as reliably as pulling the “speak” chain on Talking Barbie.

The outline of a classic non-apology follows, using quotes from Damon’s press release as examples (and let me say that I apologize in advance for putting invented italicized words in his mouth):

  • Minimize the offense (“I believe deeply”… therefore this is the authentic, good-guy me)
  • Deflect responsibility (“they offended some people”… but not my fault if they did!)
  • Say your words were taken out of context (“my comments were part of a much larger conversation”….so you, offended person, have no basis to judge what was truly said.)
  • Shift to talking about something other than the actual insult (“they started a conversation about diversity”…which is all about you, nonwhite womenfolk people, not me, Matt Damon, so I’m sort of put out here but hey, I am a nice guy just chatting, you know, just hanging out, supporting the young people, who are not some people, though they might be, so really I am all for diversity as long as I don’t have to change anything about myself, my show, or the movie industry.)
  • Avert all attempts to seek permanent structural change.

Which brings us back to last night’s episode of the GOP reality show, which bears no small resemblance to Damon’s reality show despite the fact that only one is supposed to be overtly about politics. Nonetheless, both “Project Greenlight” and the presidential debates are both creatures of the media, invested in ratings and the optics of representation, thus the events transpiring onscreen are only “real” in the sense that the humans playing themselves are not cyborgs. (Not yet, anyway.)

Ironically, the night’s putative winner was Carly Fiorina who, as "Fox & Friends" co-host Brian Kilmeade pointed out in this morning’s couch chat, would not have been on stage in the first place had CNN not “diversified” its requirements and insisted she join the all-male fray. Meanwhile, Jeb wanted Trump to apologize for offensive comments he’d made about his wife. Trump refused, as he always refuses, because his opinions are so inflammatory. To apologize confers power from the offender to the offended, even as the non-apology comes across as insincere and hypocritical. Mistakes were not made, Trump’s rhetorical stance affirms, confirming that he’s the one in control. Because power is never having to say you’re sorry, especially when you’re not.


How Matt Damon Accidentally Created #Damonsplaining

Paula Young Lee

Paula Young Lee is the author of "Deer Hunting in Paris," winner of the 2014 Lowell Thomas "Best Book" award of the Society of American Travel Writers. She is currently writing outdoor adventure books for middle grade and young adults. Follow her on Twitter @paulayounglee

MORE FROM Paula Young LeeFOLLOW paulayounglee

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aol_on Donald Trump Effie Brown Hillary Clinton Jeb Bush Matt Damon Project Greenlight

Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •