Tuesday, March 6, 2012

On Apologies

I generally avoid writing anything about Rush Limbaugh, because really, he knows who he is, we know who he is, he's not going to change, his fans aren't likely to change... so what's the point. But his apology for calling Sandra Fluke a slut and a prostitute got me thinking. Not about him so much, but about apologies in general.

What is it about an apology, and what are the conditions an apology must take place in, in order for us to take it seriously and accept it? This is interesting to me primarily because of my interest in forgiveness, and what both apologies and forgiveness do for both the wronged and wronging parties. But it's also interesting because of the role that public apologies play in our public life. It seems like in this age of electronic communication, what you say travels so far so fast, that the likelihood that any given public figure will find themselves issuing an apology at some point is very high.

In this case, Limbaugh has a pretty good incentive to make an apology. With sponsors of his radio show bailing left and right, he made this statement (via Politico) yesterday
“I always tried to maintain a very high degree of integrity and independence on this program. Nevertheless, those two words were inappropriate, they were uncalled for, they distracted from the point that I was actually trying to make, and I again sincerely apologize to Miss Fluke for using those two words to describe her. I do not think she is either of those two words.”
Limbaugh went on to reassure us that his apology was "heartfelt" and "sincere."

First, if you have to explicitly reassure people that your apology is sincere, we probably have good reason to suspect its sincerity to begin with. He doth protest too much and all that. But beyond that, we have reason to doubt the sincerity of his apology in general. If a person is apologizing for something he said which was 1) consistent in every way with his worldview and character, and 2) the kind of thing he's highly likely to say again in the future if he thinks he can get away with it, then why would we take his apology seriously? It's not that there's anything wrong with this apology itself. There's none of the doublespeak and passive-aggressive tone that some apologies have that make them so unbelievable. In this case it's purely a matter of context.

Rush, we believe you that you're sincerely sorry that you're getting some heat and losing advertising dollars over this one. That regret is clearly heartfelt and sincere. Regret about what you actually said? Not so much. The deeper lesson here (for you and everyone else) is that what makes an apology believable and constructive goes well beyond content. Sometimes context is everything.


  1. shannigan3/08/2012

    That is exactly the feeling I have about so many of these apologies - they seem so dubious but you can't put your finger on exactly why. You nailed it.

  2. This reminds me of the Imus thing - of course they're going to apologize if their job or their sponsorships are on the line.