March 01, 2012

The Unapologetic Society

Peter_Kaufman_Bio_PicPeter Kaufman

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.


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I think a lot of people do not readily admit wrongdoings because:

1. They want to be seen in a particular manner (admitting the wrongdoing would put them in a different light)
2. There is a certain thrill of doing the wrongdoing
3. His or her egos are too big

These are just some of the reasons that I believe people are terrible at confessing. I'm sure there are thousands of more reasons and even excuses as to why people do what they do or don't do. It is very unlikely that there is only one answer to why our society is becoming more and more unapologetic.

Maybe it is because we live in an increasingly nietzschean society:

The point of an apology is only rhetoric, since it won't repair the action that caused it.

Therefore there is no point in bad consciousness, because the event that triggered the apology was meant to be how it was. Why waste time with regret?

Look forward only, the philosopher would say...

Excellent post Peter. I think you touched on some key attributes of an unapologetic society.

Your statement "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."

I think we also need to explore the other side as well. When a genuine apology is given, one which is sincere and remorseful, I believe many of us do not know how to accept, forgive, hold in account an apology. I believe this also drives the disingenuous apology. It becomes about how to look good.

Great topic!!!!

Hi Peter,

Great timing on this one. Apologies are in the news, due to Rush Limbaugh. I didn't think he would apologize at all for his misogynist comments. I was surprised to see he apologized on Saturday. Interestingly, he's getting criticized for his apology. I've heard some talking heads say it sounds too manufactured, basically something typed up by a public relations person. And then I just saw this blog post about what a "real apology" would look like. America loves a good apology, but Rush failed to deliver one!

Is it not their right to offer up such excuses? And if they do so, is it not then our right whether or not to except such and apology, and decide for ourselves what is real and what is fake? Are we not as much to blame for allowing such an excuse, as they are for giving one?

hello! it seems to me that before doing something deviant the person first justifies it for themselves. then they offer the same un-apology to the public, which, they think, should understand them and accept their justification.

I think that when people do something wrong, they don't want others to know about it. When we're young, we are taught that breaking rules results in punishment, and sometimes being humiliated in front of our everyone in class. This stays with us into adulthood, when people don't want to be embarrassed or punished for wrongdoings. Therefore, they lie about it or try to pass the blame onto somebody else.

I agree with what Irene said above, when people do something wrong they don't want others to know about it. This can cause more of a dramatic scene than it needs to be. I have also noticed that every time someone says "I'm Sorry" it always has a 'but' after it which dismisses the whole meaning of an apology. Over all, I thought this article was very truthful and I think more people need to watch what they say, and learn how to apologize better/

So to add, we must also consider postmodernism. If the world is indeed in a postmodernism point of view then the boundary between normal and abnormal is as questionable now as are all the other boundaries that once defined social reality.

Your article is very convincing. I think our insecurities is what prevents us from being honest with our friends and ourselves. The idea of consequence may be what is holding us back from the truth. When admitting to our own fallacies, unconsciously, it may feel like a form of submission? No one wants to look like the "bad guy", and not admitting to your wrong doings is another way of convincing your self that you're not guilty. Also, I think morals are dying. Therefore, there are no consequences for lying to yourself.

I can admit it is extremely difficult to confess when I do something I know is incorrect because I do not want to be perceived poorly. I use strategies such as excuses and explanations to back up my apology in order to control how people will respond to me. Living with seven other girls causes even more situations where I am blamed for mistakes, big and small. There are many instances where I am confronted about not cleaning my dishes or misplacing my roommate’s shirt, for example. Instead of saying a genuine apology, I find myself making up lies so that I am not thought of negatively. In those situations I will reply, “those are not my dishes”, or “I swear I put your shirt back in your closet,” so I can put the blame off myself and onto others. Usually, my excuses work and I am forgiven just to maintain social order, like Kaufman stated. This article relates to my everyday life because I live in this individual and narcissistic society where everyone is self-absorbed and hesitant to admit his or her own faults.

Mr. Kaufman I absolutely love this piece. Being a minor I live in the heart of students and adults even who constantly make excuses. It has always been considerably disappointing to myself that people can't simply admit their wrong doings and move on to improve themselves. Your view and take on the situation is very eye opening and insightful. I wish I could make copies of this and hand it out to every student in my high school.

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