The Unapologetic Society
When was the last time you heard someone offer a sincere and genuine apology? I’m not talking about a sarcastic sorry, a begrudging apology or a forced confession. What I’m talking about is when someone says, “I’m sorry. It was my fault. I’m to blame and I take full responsibility for my actions.” Period. It seems like this sort of mea culpa is becoming increasingly rare in our society. Fewer and fewer people seem willing to hold themselves accountable for their behaviors.
Just think about all of the indiscretions that we hear about or experience in our daily lives: A politician having an extra-marital affair; an athlete using performance-enhancing drugs; a police officer arresting and detaining an innocent person; an entertainer making racist, sexist or homophobic comments; a student buying a paper off the Internet; or a friend engaging in an act of betrayal. In all of these instances it is rare for someone to readily confess and apologize for their transgressions. Too often, they only come clean when the evidence against them is too insurmountable to refute.
Once they do admit they have erred in their ways they often follow such admissions with a laundry list of explanations for their offenses. These explanations are like verbal gymnastics because it’s through a series of linguistic twists, turns, and spins that individuals attempt to minimize their behaviors and exonerate themselves of any wrongdoing.
You’ve probably heard lots of these explanations: It’s no big deal because everyone does it; it’s a non-issue because no one got hurt; I only did it because I was under a great deal of duress; the person I did this to provoked me and therefore deserved it. In effect, the apology becomes more like an un-apology.
Sociologists have been studying these verbal explanations for quite some time. C. Wright Mills refers to them as “vocabularies of motive,” Marvin Scott and Stanford Lyman call them “accounts,” David Matza and Gresham Sykes speak of “techniques of neutralization,” and John Hewitt and Randall Stokes use the term “disclaimers.” Essentially, they are all talking about the same thing: the excuses, justifications, and rationalizations that people use to explain away their questionable behavior.
The goal in using these interactive strategies is to maintain or re-establish one’s standing in a particular social group. In this sense, these verbal explanations are examples of what Erving Goffman calls impression management—our attempts to control or influence how others perceive and respond to us.
If you’ve witnessed these explanations you have probably noticed that the verbal gymnastics are often accompanied by a well-choreographed public display: a few tears are shed, a voice cracks and chokes up, and a dutiful spouse or supportive family is standing nearby. When these performances are really good a victimizer can actually be perceived as a victim, an act that we would normally condemn is now condoned, and something that was initially deemed misconduct is reinterpreted as a mere mistake.
What I have trouble understanding is why we are so reluctant or unable to admit when we were wrong. Why do we feel the need to go to such great lengths to prove that our misdeeds were really just deeds that were misread? Is it because we live in an individualistic society in which self preservation and self interest come above all else? Is it because of our culture of narcissism in which we are so self-absorbed we cannot even conceive of doing wrong? Is it that we are so cynical we think by admitting guilt we will be scorned by others?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. Maybe there are other cultural or structural factors that influence why so many of us resist fessing up to our offenses. What I do know is that when people admit they are wrong and offer a no-strings attached apology you would think we would be more willing to forgive and respect them than when they offer a disingenuous apology full of excuses and justifications. In reality, this is not always the case. There are plenty of examples of people offering un-apologies who were subsequently rewarded.
This makes me wonder. Maybe the unapologetic society is not solely an outgrowth of our individualism and narcissism. It is possible, as a friend once suggested to me, that our willingness to accept the excuses and justifications of others is a product of our collective need to maintain the stability of the social order. My friend may have a point. As Goffman argues in Interaction Ritual, the ground rule of social interaction is that we must help each other in our self presentations and performances. If we fail to do this, according to Goffman, then “interactions in most societies and most situations would be a much more hazardous thing” (p. 105).
I understand what Goffman is suggesting but it still makes me a bit uneasy. Living in a society where people willingly cover up the misbehaviors of others seems antithetical to some of our core values such as honesty, justice, morality, and ethics. But it is important to remember that we get to choose the type of society, or social group, in which we live because it is through our interactions that the social reality is constructed.
So we should ask ourselves: Do we want to live an unapologetic society where we routinely deny and cover-up wrongdoings? Or do we want to live in a society where we readily admit when we are wrong and have trust in the social order that we will be treated fairly, respectfully, and forgivingly? The choice is ours.