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OnWords: Public Apology


Recent sex scandals have seen an uptick in public apologies.

Some people are more satisfied at the sincerity of these attempts at amends than others are, but the public apology remains an important part of life in a country that constitutionally protects free speech.

The public apology acknowledges that, at some point, the personal has impacted the public, that the outer and inner persona have collapsed into a single, embarrassing mess.

The public apology externalizes the internal language of shame in an attempt to make clear that the apologizer is aware of the breach of proper conduct. It’s an attempt to right the wrong by re-establishing relationship.

So why is it that so few public apologies actually work? They seldom absolve the apologizer, and they rarely satisfy an angry public.

If they’re essentially useless, why do we bother with them?

It might help to think of public apologies as a form of decorum, a communication about appropriateness meant to assure the community that their values still exist even when those values are not always upheld.

In other words, the public apology is not about the individuals involved but about all of us, about our us-ness, our need to know that even if we’re not okay with each other, we’re still okay as a society.

Taken this way, maybe the persistence of the public apology indicates how we aspire to unity, no matter how fractured our culture appears to be.