So You’ve Been Publicly Wrong: Anatomy of a Good Apology
After making utterly distasteful comments during an interview regarding Black Widow, actors Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner offered two very different apologies today. From Entertainment Weekly:
“Yesterday we were asked about the rumors that Black Widow wanted to be in a relationship with both Hawkeye and Captain America,” Evans said in a statement provided to EW. “We answered in a very juvenile and offensive way that rightfully angered some fans. I regret it and sincerely apologize.”
“I am sorry that this tasteless joke about a fictional character offended anyone,” Renner also said in a statement provided to EW. “It was not meant to be serious in any way. Just poking fun during an exhausting and tedious press tour.”
The words aren’t all that different, but the meanings represent a near-perfect “Do and Don’t” for the public mea culpa. In an age when our private gaffes, failed jokes, and ill-considered actions are on display for the world to see via social media, many think pieces have been written about call-outs, problematic faves, and even accountability as “public shaming.” But much less has been said about a practice much older and yet apparently much harder to perfect: the art of the apology. I don’t expect anyone to be perfect, but a respectable apology is a must if I’m going to continue to support someone who’s disappointed me.
As far as white dudes go, my gold-standard apology comes from Jason Alexander, surprisingly enough, after he called cricket a “gay” sport. Alexander wrote a sizeable and heartfelt essay after being criticized for his homophobic behavior. But there’s no need for long-windedness, I’d argue: Weird Al Yankovic met with criticism last year after using an ableist term in a song, and accomplished key apology criteria in a single tweet.
Over years of observing celebrity mistakes and being on both the acting and receiving end of poorly thought-out marginalizing humor, I’ve come to identify a good apology by three main components. When I think about the public apologies that have been best received, the private apologies that have meant the most to me, and the apologies I’ve made that have been most acceptable to the offended party, they all boil down to the steps that follow.
Step 1: Provide Context.
This first step is the trickiest, and where I think most bad apologies get stuck: intent is offered up as an excuse, an argument, or a way to undermine the offended party’s experience, when it’s actually no more than context. It’s okay to explain what you thought you were doing when you made the offending remark, and it’s okay to list mitigating factors: you were tired, ill, distracted, upset. It’s not okay to consider this the apology itself.
Jason Alexander’s context is presented in a self-deprecating manner. He needed a joke; he thought it was funny at the time; he has so many friends in the industry who are gay that he forgot that homophobia is alive and well. Notice that as he moves into the next part of his apology, below, he explains how he reexamined this assumption and learned from others.
But what we really got down to is quite serious. It is not that we can’t laugh at and with each other. It is not a question of oversensitivity. The problem is that today, as I write this, young men and women whose behaviors, choices or attitudes are not deemed “man enough” or “normal” are being subjected to all kinds of abuse from verbal to physical to societal. They are being demeaned and threatened because they don’t fit the group’s idea of what a “real man” or a “real woman” are supposed to look like, act like and feel like.
For these people, my building a joke upon the premise I did added to the pejorative stereotype that they are forced to deal with everyday. It is at the very heart of this whole ugly world of bullying that has been getting rightful and overdue attention in the media. And with my well-intentioned comedy bit, I played right into those hurtful assumptions and diminishments.
On the other hand, think of the poor “apologies” you’ve heard before: “I have black friends, so there’s no way I’m a racist”; “I didn’t mean it that way”; etc. They stop there, treating the context as the response.
Step 2. Show Understanding.
This is the part where you admit that your lived experience isn’t the only one that matters. The context part of your apology should be the setup to a moment of clarity and learning in which you acknowledge that your intent does not negate the result. Understanding is what turns an apology from an awkward moment to a cathartic, positive experience––the best possible result from an offense. When someone takes the time to educate you about why something you said or did was hurtful, and you take the time to listen and learn, show respect for them, and for your own personal growth, by telling that story. Make sure you’re clear on what was offensive and why, and then repeat it back so everyone knows you get it. And that you won’t do the thing again. Then, try not to do the thing again.
Step 3. Assume Accountability.
Apology statements should be “I” statements. You said/did the thing; if you don’t take responsibility for it, you shouldn’t be apologizing at all. This is why statements like “I’m sorry you were offended” sound like “I’m sorry I got caught”: it doesn’t sound like you actually care so much as you’re annoyed that you have to say anything at all. A plain and simple “I’m sorry,” period, is the perfect way to show that you hold yourself accountable for your actions even if you didn’t intend for the reactions that followed. That’s what makes Evans’s apology so different from Renner’s: note the difference between the straightforward “I regret it and sincerely apologize” and the passive-aggressive, blame-shifting “I am sorry that this tasteless joke about a fictional character offended anyone.”
Weird Al’s tweet combined all three of these criteria with grace:
So, Jeremy Renner, I’m sorry you were inconvenienced, but you’re just going to have to do better if you want to keep this former fan interested.