A Pretty Good Public Apology

As “the Weinstein effect” continues, a top official at National Public Radio resigned today amid allegations of sexual harassment.

Here’s the apology from NPR senior vice president of news Michael Oreske:

“I am deeply sorry to the people I hurt. My behavior was wrong and inexcusable, and I accept full responsibility.”

One measure of a good apology is whether it meets the “four R’s:” Regret, Responsibility, Restitution, Refrain from the behavior in the future. This apology does a good job of addressing the first two “R’s,” Regret and Responsibility. He doesn’t mention how he plans to make it up to the victims of his harassment (“Restitution”), nor how he plans to avoid such behavior in the future (“Refrain”). But, to his credit, he also avoids saying some of the extraneous things that undermine the sincerity of public apologies.

It’s a good start.

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.”

Celebrity Chef John Besh Apologizes

Celebrity Chef John Besh stepped down this week from the restaurant group he founded, amid a host of sexual harassment complaints naming him and other top men in his company, which employs more than one thousand people in New Orleans, San Antonio and Baltimore.

Besh issued a statement in which he acknowledged an extra-marital affair with an employee two years ago. The woman has filed a sexual harassment complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Besh referred to it as a “consensual relationship.”

“Since then I have been seeking to rebuild my marriage and come to terms with my reckless actions given the profound love I have for my wife, my boys and my Catholic faith. I also regret any harm this may have caused to my second family at the restaurant group, and sincerely apologize to anyone past and present who has worked for me who found my behavior as unacceptable as I do,” he said.

“I alone am entirely responsible for my moral failings. This is not the way the head of a company like ours should have acted, let alone a husband and father. But it should not taint our incredible team of more than 1,000 employees, nor undermine our unyielding commitment to treating everyone with respect and dignity, regardless of gender, race, age and sexual preference.”

As an apology, this has some strengths, but overall, it misses the mark.

Here are some strengths:

  • “I regret…”, “I apologize” — These words are essential to apology. Another along these lines would be “sorry.”
  • “I have been seeking to come to terms with my reckless actions” – Taking responsibility
  • “… who found my behavior as unacceptable as I do” – Willing to name his behavior as “unacceptable”
  • “I alone am entirely responsible” – Not trying to foist blame on others, although this is undermined by his reference elsewhere to the affair being “consensual,” since it’s arguable whether a subordinate’s sexual relationship with her boss is ever consensual.
  • “my Catholic faith” – Brave of him to acknowledge his faith given that, although many things divide Catholics, one thing they can all agree on is that marital infidelity is a sin.

Weaknesses:

  • “I regret any harm…” “I apologize to anyone who…” — Like the words “if,” “but” or “maybe,” the word “any” is a red flag in an apology. Saying, “I regret any harm” implies that he has no idea whether his behavior harmed his staff. It’s augmented by use of the word “may”, as if he’s uncertain whether it caused harm or not. He apologizes “to anyone … who found [his] behavior unacceptable,” implying that he suspects not everyone was offended by it. It would be more effective simply to say, “I regret the harm this has caused …”
  • “But” is a red flag in apologies, as Peacemaker Ministries has been warning for years. Usually what follows the “but” is an explanation or an excuse. Here, he seems to be trying to remind his audience of all the good his company has done. But it’s disingenuous; his behavior does “undermine [the company’s] unyielding commitment to treat everyone with respect and dignity.” It turned out that commitment wasn’t so unyielding after all, so it’d be better if his apology didn’t remind people of the lapse.

It sounds like John Besh is on his way towards repentance, and I pray for the sake of him and his family that he gets there. He’s not there yet, but there’s hope.

An “Apology” Law that Actually Uses the Word “Apology”

We learn from a posting at mediate.com that Hong Kong has passed its version of what many jurisdictions refer to as an “apology law.” The idea is to encourage apologies between litigants by making apologies inadmissible should the case go to trial. The article contrasts the more straightforward Hong Kong legislation, which actually defines “apology,” and uses the word “sorry,” with the “more circumspect” California law, which makes inadmissible “[t]he portion of statements, writings, or benevolent gestures expressing sympathy or a general sense of benevolence relating to the pain, suffering, or death of a person involved in an accident and made to that person or to the family of that person.” (California Evidence Code Section 1160(a)). The Hong Kong law defines apology as, “an expression of the person’s regret, sympathy or benevolence in connection with the matter and includes, for example, an expression that the person is sorry about the matter.”

Michigan’s version of an “apology law,” passed in 2011, uses language similar to California’s in defining what is inadmissible. See MCL 600.2155. While California’s so-called “apology law” pertains to a person involved in an accident, Michigan’s is limited to actions for medical malpractice. In contrast, the Hong Kong ordinance seems to apply to any “matter.”

As the article’s author, Phyllis Pollack, who is apparently a mediator in southern California, notes, if courts and legislatures really want to encourage settlement, they could do more to protect and encourage apologies, using the new Hong Kong law as a model.

 

Michigan State Police Chief Apologizes for Facebook Meme

The head of the Michigan State Police, Kriste Kibbe Etue, posted a meme on Facebook over the weekend, criticizing NFL players who protested at the start of football games. She called them “degenerates” and accused them of hating America “and disrespect[ing] our armed forces.”

According to media reports, the meme was widely shared, although she allegedly posted it so only her friends could see it. It aligned with recent tweets by President Trump regarding NFL players.

Late Tuesday evening, Col. Kibbe Etue apologized for the post:

“It was a mistake to share this message on Facebook, and I sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended. I will continue my focus on unity at the Michigan State police, and in communities across Michigan.”

As apologies go, this one is weak. An apology to “anyone who was offended” shifts the blame to the audience. It implies that the speaker spoke truth, and that it’s the listener’s fault if the listener takes offense.

Also, the use of “anyone” implies that she doesn’t know whether there was actually anyone who was offended, and yet the Detroit Free Press reported several groups who expressed dismay at the post, which is probably what prompted the apology in the first place. Apologizing to “those who were offended” would be more honest, as she knew that she had offended plenty of people.

With apologies, less is often more. The planned apology (as opposed to an extemporaneous one) should be scrutinized for extra language that distracts from the apology. In this case, the second sentence is strange and should’ve been re-worded or omitted altogether. As a Michigan citizen, “unity” isn’t really what I want the State Police to focus on; I want them to focus on law enforcement. But if she wants to focus on unity within the State Police force, then she should not have posted something on Facebook guaranteed to divide. Does she mean that she’ll go back to focusing on unity? If she’s truly sorry for dividing her troops along racial lines, realizing that’s the result of her post, then why doesn’t she say so?

If she were truly sorry, she might have issued an apology like this:

It was foolish of me to post personal opinions on social media. I realize now that my comments were divisive and caused pain to many. I truly regret what I did. One of my goals has been to unify our wonderful state police force, and I did just the opposite. I intend to make up for my poor judgment by refraining from social media comments in the future. I hope you will forgive me.

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