Senator Elizabeth Warren has apologized—again—to Native Americans for the DNA tests she took to determine if she’s really part Cherokee. Speaking at a forum in Sioux City, Iowa, earlier this week, she said, “Like anyone who has been honest with themselves, I know I have made mistakes.” Warren apologized back in January, but only after initially refusing in October to say she was sorry, until the backlash grew so strong that she relented. With her second apology, Warren has set a new standard in the Democratic presidential primary, which some wags have dubbed the “I’m Sorry Primary.”
Former vice president Joe Biden has already apologized for his fond memories of working with segregationists in the Senate. Senator Kamala Harris, meantime, has apologized for the “unintended consequences” of a truancy law she promoted in California. Hawaii representative Tulsi Gabbard is sorry for having once opposed gay marriage, while Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has apologized for her formerly tough-on-immigration positions. Beto O’Rourke has apologized for joking about how his wife is the one raising their kids, while Marianne Williamson has asked white people to apologize to African-Americans. Finally, South Bend’s mayor, Pete Buttigieg, has apologized for saying, “All Lives Matter.” It’s not that they don’t—you’re just not allowed to say that they do. And to think that the voting doesn’t even begin for another six months!
Political candidates are lagging indicators, as the old political adage goes. So, if they’re obsessed by something, it’s a good bet that it’s already taken hold in the rest of America. That’s true of the apology culture, as it’s sometimes called, whose roots go much deeper than recent politics. There’s an entire literature, in fact, urging Americans to apologize, counseling them how to do it, cautioning them how not to, and belittling them if they won’t. In our modern therapeutic culture, where empathy is valued, experts aplenty are telling us that saying “I’m sorry” makes us better people. Depending on which of those experts you’re ready to believe, there are either three parts to an effective apology, seven steps to sincere apologies, or nine rules for saying you’re sorry. Or you can trust those who argue that there is only one way to apologize.
Many are the ways to apologize incorrectly, apparently. One of the most common involves apologizing for how a person reacts to something you said or did (“I’m sorry you were shocked when I told you I voted for Trump”), as opposed to apologizing for what you’ve actually done (“I’m sorry I voted for Trump”). To navigate this thicket, the art of advising on apologies has gotten awfully specific. There is advice on how to apologize to a girlfriend (though the author should apologize for using “girlfriend”), and how to apologize to your parents, your kids, your boss, and your roommate. There’s advice on when not to overdo apologizing, some of which, like “5 Ways to Stop Saying Sorry Too Much,” should probably be required reading by Democratic presidential candidates.
Kids come in for special advice on apologizing, apparently because children aren’t good at it. They tend to see saying sorry as a sign of weakness and need gently to be broken of that idea. A series on teaching children social skills includes an entire book on apologizing, and you can buy T-shirts for your kids that shame them by advertising to everyone that they don’t apologize well. There are books showing children how to apologize using poetry, and collections of authors’ favorite “I’m sorry” poems (though none contains my pick, William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say,” which is really a classic in the “sorry-not-sorry” vein of apologizing). There are also books counseling kids and adults on what to do if they don’t receive the apology they were expecting—a traumatic experience in a culture where everybody seems to be apologizing.
What’s ironic about this orgy of regret is that the word today means nearly the opposite of what it originally signified. To the Greeks and Romans, an apology (apologia in Greek) was a defense against accusations. Plato’s Apology of Socrates is the author’s attempt to vindicate his famous tutor against charges of corrupting Athens’s youth. The early Christian author Tertullian’s Apology was a justification of the religion, addressed to officials of the Roman Empire. This meaning of apology persisted into the late nineteenth century, when John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote the autobiographical Apologia Pro Vita Sua (Defense of One’s Life). No one is precisely sure when the definition started to change, but Shakespeare seems to have contributed to the transformation. In Richard III, the Duke of Buckingham approaches the Duke of Gloucester and begs his pardon for interrupting his conversation with two priests. “My lord, there needs no such apology,” the sinister Gloucester, who is in the process of murdering his way to the throne, replies.
Of course, we’ve come a long way since then—so far that the original meaning of apology seems buried in antiquity. Even so, there’s some evidence that Americans don’t necessarily want of their politicians what they expect of themselves. Law professor Cass Sunstein polled several hundred people on four scenarios involving a public official who apologized for a former position, statement, or behavior. In each case, the percentage of people that were less likely to support the figure after the apology was greater than the percentage that was more likely. “One reason,” Sunstein suggests, is that “an apology is like a confession. It makes wrongdoing more salient.” Voters might also question how much of a leader someone is who keeps recanting previous positions because they’re no longer popular within his or her party. And, of course, this might explain why many voters support Donald Trump, who, as the Los Angeles Times points out, is loath to apologize.
Posters for the 1970s film Love Story contained a popular line from the movie: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Though I’m still not sure, after all these years, exactly what that line means, a culture where you never have to apologize sounds increasingly appealing.
Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images