A Good Apology Doesn’t Change the Subject

We learn another element of a good apology from Kevin Spacey this week: don’t change the subject.

Mr. Spacey, a Hollywood actor, was accused this week by another actor, Anthony Rapp, of assaulting him when Rapp was 14. To his credit, Spacey issued an immediate response. He tweeted that he was “beyond horrified” to hear the accusation. He said he did not remember the incident, which would have occurred “over 30 years ago now,” but agreed that, if he “did behave then as he describes, I owe him the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior.”

Had Spacey stopped there, we would simply be examining another public apology: not fully taking responsibility (“if I did…” — never say “if”!)  but not fully shirking it either; missing the mark (how about “criminal” instead of “inappropriate”?) but hinting at remorse (“I owe him the sincerest apology”).

But Spacey tweeted a second paragraph, in which he announced that he now wants to live openly as a gay man. He did end the tweet by saying he wants to “examine my own behavior,” but it’s ambiguous as to whether he is referring to his homosexuality or to the assault. There’s an implication that the assault was due to his conflicted feelings about his sexuality.

Spacey has been excoriated on social media for this. Linking homosexuality to sexual assaults on minors feeds the worst stereotypes, and his coming-out announcement deflects attention from the victim, the crime, and the apology.

Regarding the art of apology, the lesson is clear: don’t change the subject. Spacey moved from talking about the offense in the first paragraph to talking about himself in the second. In the process, he undercut whatever good his apology had done. Once you’ve stated your apology, stop. You may want to provide an explanation, but what the offender thinks is an explanation sounds to the victim like an excuse.

In this case, it almost sounds like Spacey was thinking out loud, trying to figure out how he could have possibly done such a monstrous act, and realized both that he has a problem with alcohol and a conflict regarding his sexuality (neither of which explains his assaulting a minor). Best not to work out these inner conflicts in a public apology. Share that with your therapist, and offer the more introspective apology only after you’ve figured it out.

We would’ve preferred something like this: “I’m horrified to admit that I did something so awful, that profoundly harmed another person. I take full responsibility for the assault, and for my silence since. I am very sorry for what I did, and for the devastating impact it has had on this man’s life. I will do whatever I can to make up for this. I am starting by recognizing that I have a problem with alcohol, and I intend to seek help for that immediately. I also plan to apologize personally to this young man who bravely confronted me with my worst self.”

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