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The Year in Apologies

The 2017 movement to expose sexual abuse and harassment produced a number of high-profile, public apologies. These statements did not solve anything.

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I lived in Canada for eight years, long enough to learn that the one about Canadians constantly apologizing has some truth to it. On a winter road trip from Chicago to Toronto, I joked to my American carmates that our northern neighbors have a New Year’s tradition where they shout “Sorry!” at the sky, a way to ask the universe for national forgiveness.

The image of a contrite crowd wailing apologies to the clouds has looped through my mind in the past few months, a dumb prank turned into a daydream. I thought of it after Louis C.K. admitted that he had masturbated in front of women without their consent, and then gave a statement that failed to include the words “I am sorry” or “I apologize.” I thought about it when Harvey Weinstein cited how he “came of age in the 60’s and 70’s” to explain away the decades of abuse and assault described by dozens of women, and when Kevin Spacey acknowledged his homosexuality in an attempt to pivot away from Anthony Rapp’s chilling story about how Spacey preyed on him as a teen. It came again when Al Franken announced that he would resign from the Senate after eight women said he had groped or inappropriately touched them. Franken had previously told an interviewer that he was “sorry if these women experienced that.” For his farewell speech, he noted that leaving his political work unfinished was his only regret.

This year, we saw progress when it came to publicly exposing men for sexual transgressions. People bravely stepped forward and went on the record about abuse; media outlets poured resources and sicced talented reporters on lengthy, difficult investigations. Revelations of wrongdoing came faster than ever, as did the obligatory hangdog statements from the men in question. As the weather cooled, learning new allegations and watching alleged perpetrators scramble became a bleak routine. It was a remarkable year for revelations about abysmal behavior, but it was not so remarkable for accepting responsibility for that behavior. In December, after four women told Eater that celebrity chef Mario Batali had touched them inappropriately, Batali attached a recipe for holiday cinnamon rolls to his apology.

“An apology can misfire when its recounting of the wrong does not match the victim’s own understanding, whether by downplaying the harm involved, offering excuses, casting the apologizer’s intentions in a better light, or glossing over key aspects of the injury,” philosophy professor Alice MacLachlan wrote in 2013, in a paper about the role gender plays in the crafting of public apologies. Many of the public apologies this year emphasized the need for personal growth. “I have learned a great deal as a result of these events, and I hope others will too,” former CBS/PBS host Charlie Rose said after he had been fired for sexual harassment. “All of us, including me, are coming to a newer and deeper recognition of the pain caused by conduct in the past, and have come to a profound new respect for women and their lives.” Rose stressed that he was as surprised by his actions as anyone, noting that he “always felt I was pursuing shared feelings.” In his apology and in many others, revelations of bad behavior were an obstacle to overcome.

“REGRET IS NOT APOLOGY, chant it with me,” Marjorie Ingall wrote on her long-running blog SorryWatch, which analyzes high-profile apologies, in November. She was singling out Louis C.K.’s statement, in which he described his shame, but insisted he had just learned of the harm he’d caused. C.K., like many other recent public apologizers, cast himself as an earnest person learning the hard way that he’d made a mistake, a man reeling from the shock of understanding what he’d done.

The statements from Rose and C.K. shared a tendency with many of the other public utterances from men under fire: They seemed crafted with an eye toward eventual image-rehabilitation. After six women accused him of sexual harassment, venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck initially denied wrongdoing, but then apologized, noting that his bad behavior had been “brought to light.” Then, after resigning from his management role at Binary Capital, he changed his LinkedIn profile to read “Head of Self-Reflection, Accountability & Change.” After the recent Time magazine cover story on the wave of people stepping forward to tell their stories about being sexually harassed and mistreated, Caldbeck decided to join the conversation. “I applaud all the women who had the courage to speak out and ignite the #MeToo movement, including my accusers,” he wrote on Twitter. (It was later deleted.) According to Bloomberg, Caldbeck is already orchestrating his comeback to the tech world.

The best apologies are made of actions, not words, and even the best apologies can only reframe bad behavior as shameful mistakes instead of evidence of ingrained traits. Despite the limits of genuine penance, at the very least, it can counter the idea that wrongs have no moral consequences. It can offer the possibility of reconciliation. I’m not certain what an ideal apology for sexual misbehavior would look like, but I know that I haven’t seen it. Perhaps it would involve specifically admitting guilt instead of gesticulating toward wrongdoing, and then disappearing into a cloud of intensive therapy, donations to women’s shelters, and behind-the-scenes championing of female industry leaders. I’ll have to keep imagining it, because it certainly doesn’t exist yet.

In 2017, even when men extended an apology to the people they’d mistreated, they often simultaneously sidestepped culpability to emphasize how much they had already learned from the experience. “The women with whom I worked are smart and good people. I am ashamed to know that I made any of them feel demeaned and disrespected,” former New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier offered, after numerous women he had worked with said he had sexually harassed them. “I will not waste this reckoning.”

The word “reckoning” has been used again and again this year to describe the response to this cascade of stories about sexual harassment. (A Chicago Tribune columnist even dubbed 2017 “the year of the reckoning.”) It’s a useful catchphrase to describe how the national conversation grapples with a need for change without producing substantial transformation (or better apologies).

In a column about the exit of Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, who resigned after sexual harassment allegations, writer Wesley Yang wrote as though this “reckoning” has crested and calcified into a new, puritanical world order. “The mainstreaming of radical feminist premises has effected a rolling coup that unseats powerful men accused of insulting the dignity of women,” he wrote. Yang warned this nascent feminist hegemony that it should be careful not to abuse its power. He is not alone in worrying that this “reckoning” moment has amounted to an overzealous regime change.

At The New York Times, Michelle Goldberg feared that she had participated in a “sex panic” by calling for Al Franken’s resignation. At The New Yorker, Masha Gessen echoed that concern in a piece titled: “When Does a Watershed Become a Sex Panic?”

While cultural norms around harassment and assault are changing, to classify what is happening as a “rolling coup” is, I think, as melodramatic as calling the movement to remove men who have harassed subordinates in the workplace a sex panic. It’s tempting to see the firings of a slew of highly visible men in highly visible industries as a synecdoche for a cultural revolution, when it is, so far, a toppling of figureheads more symbolic than systemic. Many of the men who did not apologize for their transgressions were, indeed, fired or (at least temporarily) ostracized in their industries; both Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey reportedly flew to the same sex addiction rehabilitation facility in Arizona after their dismissals. But while these blacklistings represented episodic progress in taking stories of abuse seriously, they do not instantiate a sea change.

After the first Weinstein exposé, it became clear that his behavior had been an open secret in Hollywood, and that he had been allowed to prey on women with impunity for decades. As more details emerged about the far-reaching apparatus that Weinstein had in place to protect him, his expulsion proved that corruption was thoroughly baked into the industry just as much as it showed that it is possible to bring that corruption to light.

There is a real and frightening possibility that the few-dozen high-profile men held accountable and tossed out in this moment will operate more as inconsistently chastened sin-eaters than as deterrents, and the shallowness of their apologies hints at this. That so many of the men outed as sexual predators have issued nonapologies is no coincidence. They have not reached the conclusion that they need to show actual penitence. After all, simply by saying something about the allegations against them, men like Franken and Weinstein are doing more than the current president of the United States. And yet they’ve still done nothing at all to make reparations. I’m not certain they even serve as deterrent examples. According to the nonprofit Sentencing Project, criminology research indicates that certainty of punishment is more important than severity of punishment when it comes to dissuading people from committing a crime. In other words, consistent consequences for sexual misconduct would matter more than the splashy but haphazard dismissals of figureheads.

A coup involves supplanting one regime for another. A new societal command has not been established just because women have finally gained enough credibility to inconsistently and incompletely enforce cultural norms like “men should not be able to grope women without their consent.” The patriarchy is not dead because Harvey Weinstein is sweating somewhere outside Phoenix. It’s definitely not dead because Matt Lauer devoted two sentences of his post-firing public statement to issue a vague apology before noting that some of his accusers were lying and that he was going to go on a soul-searching journey.

Lin Farley coined the phrase “sexual harassment” in 1975, and she was excited by how quickly the term caught on, and helped women describe what they had experienced. “It was as if a light had been turned on in a dark room. The solidarity that women felt for one another was contagious; sisterhood in the workplace suddenly seemed doable,” Farley wrote in October. “The decades since have been disappointing. The working women’s revolution I once envisioned hasn’t happened.”

The Weinstein movement was not a fresh start, but rather a continuation of an ongoing project to bring the harmful sexual behavior of powerful men to light, the same project as Farley. This project is unfinished, it has not produced a revolution, and it continues to be circumscribed and undercut by several factors. This project did successfully bring down Fox News chairman Roger Ailes and Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly, and it helped put Canadian broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi off the air and on trial. It also helped expose Bill Cosby as a serial predator, and put him in a courtroom. But several of the most powerful men who have been accused of the most serious offenses, including Donald Trump, remain unrepentant and completely unwilling to engage with the accusations. What’s more, men like Ghomeshi and Cosby have been professionally blacklisted, but have not seen legal consequences for their actions; the Ghomeshi acquittal and the Cosby mistrial highlight the difficult process of legally penalizing predators. Exposure does not always lead to repercussions. And even when it leads to performative statements and expressions of regret, those do not necessarily conjure justice, either. The world may finally see Cosby for what he is, but his criminal record is still clean. Cosby was able to admit to apologizing in a deposition without his admission pinning him down as culpable. Ghomeshi still isn’t sorry; he has a podcast.

In November, Farley discussed on a PBS panel whether the current deluge of sexual harassment revelations finally, really amounts to a sea change. She noted that the high-profile firings and accusations represented “extraordinary development,” but she did not equate them with wide-ranging social upheaval. “I have been at this 40 years. I think what is going to make for a change in the workplace for women is if we start to have parity between men and women as supervisors, managers, bosses, owners. That’s when you’re going to see a real sea change on the job for working women. What we have seen over the last 40 years is that court suits don’t do it, sexual harassment training hasn’t done it,” she said. “Everything that’s been tried as an effort to stop sexual harassment has failed miserably.”

Until our systems change, even the sincerest sorries are measly gestures. The apologies of 2017 were not a solution or a conclusion. If anything, they were a reminder that what looks like a watershed doesn’t always result in consequences at all.

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