I’m Sorry, So Sorry

The East Village Mamele

By Marjorie Ingall

Published March 23, 2007, issue of March 23, 2007.
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The news is full of non-apology apologies lately. For serving as rotten role models for the children of our fair nation, so many weasels deserve a time out.

First up we have the Mean Girls of Delta Zeta. This sorority’s chapter at Depauw University was deemed by fellow students to be full of geeky non-drunks. In what was surely a coincidence, the national officers of the sorority paid a visit, declared that 23 of the 35 members were not sufficiently devoted to recruitment (despite their protests to the contrary) and booted them mid-year. In what was surely another coincidence, the expelled girls included every member who was overweight or considered uncute. After a public outcry, the sorority’s national president responded, “We misjudged how these communications would be received. Delta Zeta deeply regrets that.” Really! And I deeply regret your lack of actual regret! As did Depauw’s president, Robert G. Bottoms, who kicked the sorority out last week. On its Web site, the sorority’s leaders still maintain that their actions were “mischaracterized.”

My friend — the writer Susan McCarthy (a.k.a. “Sumac”) — and I exchanged instant messages about this, in character as sorority officers, because we are writers and we procrastinate like that.

Sumac: We are sorry if anyone felt bad because they weren’t cute enough to hang with us.
Mamele: We are sorry if people didn’t have cuter parents because if they did they would probably be cute enough to hang with us.
Sumac: Yes, we regret that deeply.
Mamele: We are sorry President Bottoms is such a loser and his name is retarded and we are preemptively sorry if actual retards are offended by this but he is so totally retarded and we are sorry if everyone knows it now.
Sumac: Oh my God, totally.

(Note to the person who sent me the email last time I used the word “retard” in a parodic way: I apologize if you misunderstand my use of disparaging language to make unflattering rhetorical points about bad people.)

And what could be a more natural segue than to point out that President Bush is also a master of the non-apology apology? Mostly he doesn’t apologize at all (for instance, he’s flatly refused to apologize for that whole “oh yeah, we’re totally eavesdropping on you without going through existing legal channels” thing), but hey, he’s The Decider, and apparently The Decider’s superpowers do not include saying the words “I erred.” On those rare occasions when the president does acknowledge errors, his general phrasing is, “Mistakes were made.” By whom? Nancy Pelosi? Didn’t Bush’s fourth grade English teacher warn him about use of the passive voice? Comparatively speaking, Alberto Gonzales is a paragon of apologetic growth and human development, moving from “Mistakes were made” to “I think I did make some mistakes” in only 24 hours last week! By Saturday, he’ll probably be singing the Ashamnu!

Lest we think Republicans own the non-apology, witness Hillary Clinton going to tortured lengths to avoid admitting she was ever in error about voting to go to war in Iraq: “If the most important thing to any of you is choosing someone who did not cast that vote or has said his vote was a mistake, then there are others to choose from,” she said. I’m so glad she’s not showing any of that estrogenated, feminine “nuanced thinking.” Because hey, tangled rhetorical weaseliness has worked so well for Democrats running for president in the past!

Even religious figures can get in on the non-apology apology act! Pope Benedict XVI quoted a Byzantine emperor last fall, saying that the teachings of Muhammad were “evil and inhuman.” When Muslims expressed outrage, the pope “apologized” thusly: “I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims.” Catch that? He’s sorry for the reactions, but not for the words themselves. He might as well have said, “I’m sorry you people blew this out of proportion but believe me, I know it’s all been downhill for you since you invented math and the astrolabe, so I get that you’re very defensive and insecure which makes you go all war-like to overcompensate, but that’s cool, it’s how you roll. Don’t worry about it, and it’s awesome that a Muslim also invented coffee!”

All this seems particularly resonant to me right now, while I’m trying to teach both my girls how to apologize. Josie, at 5, owns the “I’m sorry, but” non-apology. “I’m sorry I won’t give Maxine a turn with the toy shopping cart, but she can play with every other toy in the house!” “I’m sorry I whipped that strand of Mardi Gras beads at Maxine like Indiana Jones slashing his foes’ legs out from under them with a bullwhip, but she was so not sharing!” Josie comes by this construction honestly, since Jonathan is also the master of the “I’m sorry, but” device. (His version: “I’m sorry I yelled at you, but if you don’t put your receipts into Quicken from now on I am taking away your wallet and making you live on a blanket on the Bowery!”) No. No buts. Whatever the other person’s offense, whatever justification you have for your own behavior, it has no place in a real apology. You’re sorry or you’re not. The other person’s culpability is not relevant in a true apology; your own menschitude is. “Sorry but” is no better than the pope’s “sorry if.”

Maxine, at 2, is just learning to say she’s sorry. I know some parents believe toddlers should not have to apologize; if they’re developmentally still unable to feel empathy, why make them perform like show ponies? Just apologize on their behalf. Well, I disagree; I think we learn the behavior first and the motive will follow. As my mother the professor of education points out, the Hebrew word for “moral education,” musar, comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for “discipline.” Teach the kids mitzvot first; once they’ve got the muscle memory they can work on internalizing the meaning. Learn the “how” and eventually you can start living the “why.” So when Maxine acts like a little cretin, she gets a time out and she has to apologize. “I’m sowwy, Jojo,” she says, patting her sister’s knee with her Crayola-marker-stained little hand. Is she really? Who cares? Just do it, kid. I do talk to her about why she should be sorry, and I do make sure I walk the walk; I apologize after I lose my temper with her or her sister and I make sure she and Josie hear me apologize to Jonathan if I’ve, um, forgotten to put the receipts into Quicken yet again. Then again, half-hearted apologies are only valid when you’re 2.

My instant-messaging pal Susan wrote a fabulous piece for Salon a few years ago called “How to Say You’re Sorry: A Refresher Course.” “‘Sorry if’ is a conditional apology,” she wrote. “Conditional apologies make things worse, not better.” So “I’m sorry your frog is dead” is a far better apology than, “I’m sorry if your frog’s death causes you pain.” Susan goes further into what to say if you actually killed the person’s frog, spiraling into a bravura linguistic aria that is both hilarious and a sad reminder of the mentality that gets countries arrogantly stuck in unwinnable wars.

In a telephone conversation, Susan drew a distinction between the fake apology (“I’m sorry if you were upset”), which merely puts the onus back onto the offended party, and the “poisoned apology,” “the non-apology that goes farther and actually contains an insult,” as Susan put it. “The poisoned apology says, ‘I’m so sorry if you’re so unstable that my completely reasonable remark upset you.’”

Neither one is acceptable from anyone in a leadership position, or hey, from any grown human. We parents have to be moral exemplars. So everybody buck up, own your mistakes, get yourselves some simple active-voice declarative sentences without all those dependent non-apologizing clauses, and stop being such babies. When someone still in Huggies apologizes better than you do, we’re all in trouble.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.

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