Are you in the public eye? Have you just told the Jews in Israel to go back to Germany? Or perhaps you have recounted an off-color joke or were caught using an ethnic slur.
Chances are your next step will be to offer a “heartfelt” apology, maintain your comments do not reflect your “true beliefs,” and that you will work toward “greater understanding” with whichever group it is that you have just offended.
Maybe there will even be a tearful press conference followed by a stint in rehab if the comments or actions were particularly egregious.
And that, frankly, is a shame.
It is sad that society has reached the point where we castigate those in the public eye for their opinions or lifestyle, and worse, expect them to apologize for their beliefs or how they choose to live their lives. Most galling, however, is how public figures continue to cave to society’s often-irrational demands for contrition and remorse.
The following is a more satisfying way in which public figures should confront controversy the next time they are caught saying or doing something stupid:
1. Don’t say “I’m sorry” – unless it is immediately followed by “that I got caught.” Whether you are a politician found taking bribes or cheating on his wife, or an athlete caught with a suitcase full of performance-enhancing drugs, you knew your actions were wrong, but at some point, made the decision that it did not matter. Your actions stemmed from self-entitlement and selfishness, without regard for those who would be hurt. So, rather than say you are “ashamed” of cheating on your wife of 31 years, perhaps it would be better to say “I’m sorry for the effect this will have on my next election campaign.”
2. Do own up to your words. It is insulting to everyone’s intelligence for a celebrity to make a controversial statement and then immediately backtrack and maintain that it isn’t representative of their true beliefs. Longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas, after opining in May that the Jews need to go back to Germany and Poland, issued a statement saying it is her “heartfelt belief” that a Middle Eastern peace can only come through mutual respect, when it is obvious that in her mind, peace will only come once Israelis “get the hell out of Palestine.”
It would be heartening for public figures to show some temerity and actually stand up for their beliefs, regardless of how offensive they may be. Immediately disowning statements almost as soon as they are made is childish pandering and shows an intellectual shortcoming if one cannot stand by one’s true beliefs, even if they do cause offense.
3. Do tell your critics to lighten up. The media love a good controversy, and nothing fans the flames of media interest like a contrite celebrity. So to nip the inevitable media feeding frenzy in the bud, be unapologetic and tell your critics to lighten up. Don Imus and Michael Richards would have been wise to follow the Howard Stern school of thought on such controversies by telling their critics it was a joke and too bad if they did not find it funny. Instead, they acted like scolded dogs, and once the media sensed blood, it was game over for them.
Of course, the best approach is to not say or do stupid things in the first place. However, given the temptations inherent in a celebrity culture, that is not likely. It would be heartening if public figures could be honest and not pander with hollow apologies; stand by their controversial remarks instead of immediately disowning them; and not be afraid to make the occasional entertaining, if controversial, statement. Professional athletes and politicians have been reduced to cliché-spouting shells with cardboard personalities.
Society would be well served by more colorful politicians such as Vice President Joe Biden or the late Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. And we can do our part by getting past our self-righteous outrage and toughening ourselves to deal with opinions we find offensive instead of immediately calling for a shallow, unmeant apology.
Allan Richarz is a writer and teacher currently working near Tokyo.