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Spike Lee and Geraldo: Why is a good apology so hard to find?

The number of reported public apologies has skyrocketed recently, yet the quality of those apologies is plummeting. The trend appears to have captured Spike Lee and Geraldo Rivera.

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A hyper-connected online culture means more and more opportunities to say or do something offensive, he notes. This also means that “more and more people are watching, listening, and most importantly ‘sharing’ the offensive thing that someone has said or done,” he says via e-mail, adding, “so we're seeing the offensive statement or action more than perhaps we would have, which yields more calls for apology, which in turn yields more and more terrible apologies.”

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Professor Kohen and a student launched the terribleapologies blog two days ago in response to Rivera’s apology quagmire, with the intent of studying just how bad an apology can be, he says.

“It’s tempting to think that these bad apologies don't matter for the people who make them,” he says, citing both Rivera and conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh, who issued what many dubbed a non-apology after calling a Georgetown University law student a “slut” and a “prostitute.” 

“That must be what Rush Limbaugh and Geraldo Rivera are hoping – but I think that the public won't be so fast to forget. Indeed, with social networking, my sense is that a bad public apology can hang around for a really long time and can have fairly serious adverse effects (like the campaign targeting Limbaugh's sponsors, for example). Indeed, there's more interest in bad apologies right now than I might have thought,” he says.

The polarization of public life has made it harder than ever to find the space for real repentance, reform or forgiveness, says Conservative Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who is running for Congress in New Jersey.

“I’ve long thought Elton John had it right when he said sorry is the hardest word,” he says, but a growing culture of meanness is making it harder. “Someone makes a mistake and we carve them up with knives,” he says, adding, “Do we really want to live in a world where people can make one mistake and that’s it?”

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