7 times powerful people gave pathetic apologies for their bad behavior

These lame fauxpologies remind us how not to say “I’m sorry.”

Published December 11, 2017 6:00AM (EST)

Lena Dunham on stage during the panel discussion for "Girls" at the HBO portion of the 2014 Winter Television Critics Association tour.                    (AP/Richard Shotwell)
Lena Dunham on stage during the panel discussion for "Girls" at the HBO portion of the 2014 Winter Television Critics Association tour. (AP/Richard Shotwell)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


Few years have been as full of public apologies as 2017.

Wait, let me restate that. Few years have been as full of public apologies, yet rife with non-apologies, as 2017. The #MeToo campaign, along with investigative journalism, forced many well-known people (but mostly men) to attempt sincere shows of public contrition for various longstanding forms of misconduct (but mostly sexual bullying, harassment and abuse). Some did better than others. Many failed miserably, inspiring the satirical Celebrity Perv Apology Generator, which does exactly what its name suggests. (Apology example: “As someone who grew up in a different era, harassment is completely unacceptable—especially when people find out about it.”)

It seems worthwhile here to discuss what distinguishes a good apology from a bad one, an actual “sorry” from a “sorry not sorry.” Apologies that get it right explicitly admit failures, take responsibility, acknowledge the hurt inflicted, make no excuses, identify how the harmful behavior will change, and spell out how the perpetrator of the bad behavior will make amends.

It’s a good idea to avoid talking too much about yourself or your feelings while expressing contrition. While it is a good start to acknowledge that the shameful accusation is “true,” you should still ensure the word “sorry” makes more appearances than references to “[your] dick.” Also, maybe don’t try later denying you did a thing you already issued a half-assed apology for, especially when we can hear and see you on the videoDonald. Stop it.

The point is, all this fauxpologizing has made me reflect on terrible apologies from recent years. Here are seven examples of non-apologies that remind us how not to say “I’m sorry.”

1. Megyn Kelly: Recognizing and calling out my unfiltered racism makes you the racist

If you watch Megyn Kelly’s new-ish morning show (don’t), you might think nothing comes more naturally to the NBC host than stiffly dancing around with audience members in a joyless and contrived attempt at some simulacrum of sisterhood. You would think wrong. What actually comes much more easily to Kelly is racist fear-mongering, which she did a far more convincing job of enjoying during 12 years at Fox News. That includes the time Kelly, without a hint of satire, insisted both Jesus and Santa are white, an absurd dum-dum of a claim that resulted in numerous calls for an apology. Instead, Kelly made herself into a political correctness martyr and blamed people who don’t get how hilarious racism is.

In particular, Kelly moaned about what she called the "knee-jerk instinct by so many to race-bait and to assume the worst in people, especially people employed by the very powerful Fox News Channel,” because conservative media millionaires are the people really suffering in this country. The self-absorbed non-apology continued apace: “For me, the fact that an offhand jest I made during a segment about whether Santa should be replaced by a penguin has now become a national firestorm says two things: race is still an incredibly volatile issue in this country and Fox News and yours truly are big targets for many people.”

2. Brock Turner: I’m not even sure how to spell "personal responsibility"

Caught in the act of raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, Brock Turner wrote a letter to the court before it handed down the absurdly lenient sentence that reaffirms how wealth and whiteness affect criminal justice. Turner’s “apology” spends most of its length lamenting how hard he’s been on himself (“I shake uncontrollably from the amount I torment myself by thinking about what has happened”) and blaming his tendency toward raping women on alcohol and “party culture.”

“At this point in my life, I never want to have a drop of alcohol again. I never want to attend a social gathering that involves alcohol or any situation where people make decisions based on the substances they have consumed,” Turner wrote, as millions of people who have gotten drunk and not raped anyone scratched their heads. He went on to blame news coverage of the rape, his swimming skills and his acceptance to Stanford—but not, you know, being a rapist—for his problems. “I’ve lost two jobs solely based on the reporting of my case. I wish I never was good at swimming or had the opportunity to attend Stanford, so maybe the newspapers wouldn’t want to write stories about me.”

Cue the tiniest violin playing.

“I want to show that people’s lives can be destroyed by drinking and making poor decisions while doing so... I know I can impact and change people’s attitudes towards the culture surrounded by binge drinking and sexual promiscuity that protrudes through what people think is at the core of being a college student… I’ve been shattered by the party culture and risk-taking behavior that I briefly experienced in my four months at school. I’ve lost my chance to swim in the Olympics. I’ve lost my ability to obtain a Stanford degree. I’ve lost employment opportunity, my reputation and most of all, my life. These things force me to never want to put myself in a position where I have to sacrifice everything.”

First of all, maybe try not raping anyone else. That seems like a good place to start.

3. Lena Dunham: Oops, I did it again

Since forever — or at least from around when "Girls" became a thing — Lena Dunham has said and done a lot of stupid crap that reveals her short-sightedness and ignorance on issues of import too myriad to get into here. In several cases, she has followed up with a public apology, followed by another stupid statement, then another apology, rinse, wash, repeat. (She once wrote a piece about her “apology addiction” which missed all the points ever.)

Most recently, Dunham, who once wrote “women don't lie about: rape” accused a black woman, actress Aurora Perrineau, of lying about rape, because the white accused rapist was a buddy of hers. In addition to its general hypocrisy, Dunham’s horrible history on race made the statement all the more galling. After being taken to task across social media, Dunham issues another statement via Twitter — an apology, of course, as dictated by the pattern — which was equally tone deaf.

“I naively believed it was important to share my perspective on my friend’s situation as it has transpired behind the scenes over the last few months . . . I now understand that it was absolutely the wrong time to come forward with such a statement and I am so sorry.”

A few things: 1) You can literally just be quiet when you have nothing to add to except the dismissal of a woman’s description of her experience with sexual assault. Seriously; 2) when you add little statements hinting at your “behind the scenes” info about said experience, which is absolutely meant as a callback to your original dismissive statement, you undermine your so-called apology, so why bother issuing it? 3) it’s not just that it was “the wrong time to come forward.” If that’s what you think the central problem with your original statement is here, you really are never going to get it.

In response to Dunham’s consistently garbage stance on race going back years, author and Lenny Letter contributor Zinzi Clemmons encouraged “women of color — black women in particular — to divest from Lena Dunham.”

4. Don Lemon: Just bite your way out of sexual assault

It was 2014. A steady stream, then a deluge of women came forward to accuse Bill Cosby of rape allegations dating back decades. One of those women, Joan Tarshis, was subjected to a classic version of the Victim Blame Game by CNN’s Don Lemon.

"You know, there are ways not to perform oral sex if you didn’t want to do it,” Lemon suggested to Tarshis, unhelpfully. “Meaning the using of the teeth,” he interjected a second or so later. “As a weapon,” he continued, turning the horribleness up to 11. “Biting,” he added, proving a relentless ability to make it worse. “I had to ask,” Lemon concluded, which he absolutely did not.

Aside from the insane insinuation that the fault of rape lies with anyone but rapists, the idea that you could — and should — have stopped your rape by biting off your assailant’s penis fails on every conceivable front. It is an utterly ridiculous and offensive ask, both logistically and psychologically. Lemon, a sexual assault survivor, issued this tepid apology after 24 hours of outcry: “If my question struck anyone as insensitive, I’m sorry as that was not my intention.”

He’s sorry the question struck you as insensitive. Next!

5. Ryan Lochte: This is a total non-apology I could not possibly have written

During the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, swimmer Ryan Lochte and three friends from the American team could have gone out and partied all night without international incident. Instead, Lochte et al. chose to wreck shop at a local gas station and make up a story about being held up at gunpoint by brown criminals. Lochte—who also sprinkled in fake details about his bravery — reportedly made up the story so he wouldn’t get in trouble with his mom.

As I noted in a piece about the incident at the time, “if you have ever seen words come out of Ryan Lochte’s mouth, and you read his ‘apology’ on social media, you will instantly know there is no way he wrote, nor was allowed to contribute to, this letter”:

“I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend — for not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of that early morning and for my role in taking the focus away from the many athletes fulfilling their dreams of participating in the Olympics. It’s traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country — with a language barrier — and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave, but regardless of the behavior of anyone else that night, I should have been much more responsible in how I handled myself and for that I am sorry to my teammates, my fans, my fellow competitors, my sponsors, and the hosts of this great event.”

To again revisit my previous take on the incident:

Do you see it? The convenient omission of what, precisely, his “behavior” actually entailed? The reliance, even still, on the trope of the frightening foreign “stranger” — in whose country you are a guest — speaking gibberish demands at you? The non-mention of the fact that the group was reportedly asked to pay $50 for the damage they’d done and refused? The use of the phrase “regardless of the behavior of anyone else that night,” which serves to distract from Lochte’s own behavior, which again, he never quite gets around to acknowledging?

Kudos to his PR team for a job of ducking and dodging that proves they earn their cut.

6. Scientist Tim Hunt: Women are too emotional to be in laboratories

In 2015, Nobel Prize-winner Tim Hunt remarked to an audience of women science reporters, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls....Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls?”

Given an opportunity to apologize by BBC Radio 4, Hunt declared he was “really sorry that I said what I said” — mostly because it was "a very stupid thing to do in the presence of all those journalists."

"I did mean the part about having trouble with girls," he continued, figurative shovel digging even deeper. "It is true that people — I have fallen in love with people in the lab and people in the lab have fallen in love with me and it's very disruptive to the science because it's terribly important that in a lab people are on a level playing field. I found that these emotional entanglements made life very difficult. I'm really, really sorry I caused any offense, that's awful. I certainly didn't mean that. I just meant to be honest, actually."

For years people have been trying to nail down why there are so few women in STEM fields, but the answer remains elusive.

7. A lot of the men who "apologized" for sexual harassment this year: I hope my PR person at least makes me sound earnest

Keep in mind, I’m not even including people who continue to deny and deflect, like Roy Moore or Brett Ratner. And please know this item could be a list in and of itself (in fact, that very list has been written a few times in the past few months). I am leaving off many, many examples because otherwise this piece would never end and I assume you have a life to lead between breaking news of emerging harassers and their apology statements. But here are a few apologies from men accused of sexual harassment and abuse who did it wrong.

Harvey Weinstein: His open letter of apology kicked off by absolving him of full responsibility by suggesting he was just too behind the times to know any better, an insinuation belied by the "team of spies” he employed to keep his victims quiet. "I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then." (Did I mention the letter misquotes a Jay-Z lyric? Because it does.)

Garrison Keillor: How unsurprising that instead of a letter of apology, the Prairie Home Companion host offered a Keilloresque attempt at humor. After stating his “hand went up . . . about six inches” under a woman’s shirt — by accident, he suggests — Keillor paints himself as the world’s smuggest victim. “If I had a dollar for every woman who asked to take a selfie with me and who slipped an arm around me and let it drift down below the beltline, I'd have at least a hundred dollars,” he notes, so we know how unfair this whole thing is to him. “So this is poetic irony of a high order. But I'm just fine.” (Not that we asked, Gar.)

Russell Simmons: “While [Jenny Lumet’s] memory of that evening is very different from mine, it is now clear to me that her feelings of fear and intimidation are real,” Russell wrote, as if anyone might have seen the situation Lumet has described as anything but harrowing. “While I have never been violent, I have been thoughtless and insensitive in some of my relationships over many decades and I sincerely and humbly apologize.”

Kevin Spacey: Pulled an intentionally distracting bait-and-switch by interrupting his “apology” to come out as a gay man, as if the issue of his sexuality and propensity for sexual harassment had anything to do with each other. (They do not.) As Billy Eichner noted on Twitter, Spacey “invented something that has never existed before: a bad time to come out.”

R. Kelly: Actually, R. Kelly has never attempted an apology. He hasn’t once come close to saying sorry or facing penalties, because despite dozens of allegations made by girls as young as 14 dating back to the 1990s, along with video evidence and a consistent record of abuse that is ongoing as you read this, his career continues to thrive. To quote Jim DeRogatis, who has written multiple investigative stories about Kelly, “no one, it seems, matters less in our society than young black women.”

By Kali Holloway

Kali Holloway is the senior director of Make It Right, a project of the Independent Media Institute. She co-curated the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s MetLiveArts 2017 summer performance and film series, “Theater of the Resist.” She previously worked on the HBO documentary Southern Rites, PBS documentary The New Public and Emmy-nominated film Brooklyn Castle, and Outreach Consultant on the award-winning documentary The New Black. Her writing has appeared in AlterNet, Salon, the Guardian, TIME, the Huffington Post, the National Memo, and numerous other outlets.

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