The public mea culpa has become a mainstay of the news cycle. Everyone, it seems, has an apology for bad behavior, from Starbucks to Mark Zuckerberg to Roseanne Barr to Samantha Bee (see Talking Points). Credit, or blame, social media and the outrage cycle that now dominates national discourse, where every gaffe and offense results in demands for firings and punishment. A simple “sorry” is no longer good enough; the quality of the contrition matters, too. Roseanne’s apology last week was deemed insincere after she tried to blame sleeping pills for a racist outburst; Bill Clinton displayed familiar self-righteousness and self-pity when he insisted he didn’t owe Monica Lewinsky an apology. And of course there’s President Trump, whose frequent demands for apologies—from ABC, ESPN, the intelligence community, The New York Times, Saturday Night Live, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the cast of Hamilton, to name just a few—stand in stark contrast to his refusal to ever say sorry himself.
The endless demand for public apologies, even over the smallest slights, risks cheapening them and robbing them of their power. We’ve also seen vividly in the past year just how excruciating bad apologies can be, as powerful men implicated by #MeToo tried to deflect or minimize their own wrongdoing. But it’s worth remembering why we as humans crave apologies in the first place. Fundamentally, they signal that we share core values about right and wrong, and that we agree as a society on what we can reasonably expect from others in terms of civility, respect, and kindness. That’s not an easy conversation to have at the best of times—let alone in our polarized environment, where the slightest disagreements are construed as attacks on one’s character or patriotism. But if we don’t keep trying to have that conversation, and to set down markers about what behavior is acceptable and what should be grounds for shame, I imagine we’ll all be sorry before long.