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.

Richard Drew/AP/File
In this June 2010 file photo, Fox News Channel commentator Geraldo Rivera speaks on the 'Fox & friends' television program in New York. Rivera has spent the past week fending off criticism of his efforts to apologize for his comments that the Florida teenager Trayvon Martin might not have been shot had he not been wearing a hoodie.

Public apologies are so common these days that multiple websites have sprung up just to keep track of who is asking forgiveness of whom. Effectiveapology.com, for instance, has a blog with the “apology of the week,” and the just-launched terribleapologies.tumblr.com ranks the worst of them.

This week alone, Geraldo Rivera and Spike Lee are in the apology corner being assessed, evaluated, and rated on the details of their infraction and the effectiveness and sincerity of their public efforts to make amends.

This critical scrutiny of public manners leads to some obvious questions about why we are seeing such an extended effort to recover after making a highly visible faux pas: Why does it seem so hard to apologize these days – have we all forgotten simple early lessons about how to say “sorry"?

“We are in a pandemic of bad behavior,” says Dr. Aaron Lazare, chancellor and dean emeritus of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester and author of the 2004 book “On Apology.” 

He has studied the frequency of apologies in published news reports from 1900 to the present day and says since the 1980s, “the number of apologies has tripled.” But, he adds, the effectiveness and sincerity of those apologies has plummeted.

“Most of these people simply want to have their cake and eat it too,” he says, noting that the key to a genuine apology is humility and restoration of dignity for the offended party.

“What we’re seeing now is most of these apologies are simply efforts at self-justification and an attempt to show how brilliant they really are, rather than any thought about the victim,” who more often than not, ends up being blamed, he adds.

Mr. Rivera has spent the past week fending off criticism of his efforts to apologize for his comments that Florida teenager Trayvon Martin might not have been shot had he not been wearing a hoodie.

Spike Lee, meanwhile, has been knocked for merely tweeting his apologies to a Florida couple whose address he mistakenly passed along as being the home of the neighborhood-watch volunteer who shot and killed the Florida teen.

The 24/7 media culture is partly responsible for the explosion of apologies, says Ari Kohen, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

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.”

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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