The Never-Ending Sorry

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The insatiable need to force apologies for wrongthink, and the pointlessness of ever thinking that you’ll be forgiven.

Just as the list of transgressions in modern society grows ever longer, morphing and restructuring acceptable language as it goes, it seems that the need for frequent apology has grown alongside it. Truly, we live in an era of apologies: nearly every day, ‘calls’ or ‘demands’ grow for someone or other to say sorry, publicly, for something they have said or done at some point in their lives, something now deemed beyond the pale. Never you mind this idea of social mores changing with time – apologise for that bigotry. It simply isn’t good enough. Change, learn and grow. An army of the under-employed – some in the mainstream media – now devotes hours of time per week rooting through a person’s past, looking for something to get them to apologise for. In a good week, they’ll get to hear their magic word and then they can move on, refreshed, to do the same to someone else. It’s important to have a role in life, and this is theirs.

So relentless is this taste for apologies that it doesn’t just deal with individual offences anymore. As the lust for sorry takes hold, it reaches ever further – into entire historical periods on occasion, so that people are supposed to apologise for centuries of practices which had nothing to do with them. One might argue that you cannot meaningfully apologise for something for which you bear no responsibility, but again, hush your mouth and just apologise. Bad things from the past can live on, like a miasma, hanging there and ruining things for all of us until a lovely, fresh ‘sorry’ comes along to clear the air. It could be family guilt – political guilt – class guilt – gender guilt – even national guilt. Just because you could not have prevented it doesn’t mean it’s not on you to get up on a little podium and say that certain something. Only then, after the weird, obligatory lip service, can we truly progress.

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One might argue that apologising profusely is nothing new at all. Certainly, here in Britain, we have made a minor artform of frequent apology. It’s not unknown for a British person to say ‘sorry’ to someone who bumps into them; I know I’ve done it on more than one occasion. I had a Russian colleague once who opined that learning to speak English had been a complete waste of his time: he said that he could have learned the words ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’, and these would have served him for most social situations. However, even the British enthusiasm for the hardest word pales against the broader, more insistent modern requirement to get an apology at any cost. It’s not what it was, anymore: a chance to set things straight between individuals, a moment where you put things on a level and then move on. An apology now has turned into an act of supplication, the establishment of a new, unequal relationship. It’s no longer a ‘sort it to forget it’ kind of a deal. It always demands more.

A few weeks ago, actress Halle Berry put out a public apology for…considering an acting role. Yeah, the more I think of it, the more I think it’s a strange move for a professional actress; the apology was deemed necessary, however, as the role in question related to trans people, of whom the most voluble activists are some of the thirstiest people on the planet when it comes to apologies. Berry said (and note the full fluency in the new sociolect): “I now understand that I should not have considered this role, and that the transgender community should undeniably have the opportunity to tell their own stories.” Whilst some people accepted this apology, there were many for whom all this was not far enough, not good enough. “It would have also been nice if you acknowledged misgendering your character in your remarks as well,” said one commenter. “Thank you but please publicly apologize for the hurtful depiction of a man of trans experience being a ‘she’ and it being a woman’s story. Your ally-ship needs to go further by repairing these comments,” said another. Thank you…but… Here, as elsewhere, one apology is the gateway drug for more apologies.

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Similarly, no one can fail to have spotted the recent J K Rowling hate-in where her comments about sex and gender drew down a storm of abuse onto her head. Without getting too far embroiled in the trans argument – a different rant for a different time, maybe – you have to admit that Rowling’s adamant refusal to say sorry felt absolutely astonishing in a world grown so used to hearing it. In her case, her wealth and independence mean she has no real fear of being cancelled for this refusal, a situation few people can boast – but even were she to capitulate at this point, can you conceive of an apology which would ever, ever suffice for those demanding one? She understands, quite rightly, that to retract and retreat now would be the worst thing she could do. Nor is she in any way obliged to say sorry for something if (whisper it) she isn’t sorry.

We are living in an age, then, whereby an odd turn of events, an apology can simultaneously mean nothing (you say it because you’re meant to say it) and everything (if you don’t say it, it can materially cause you harm). It has this power, as it has established itself as a new obligation bordering on religion. The only way to fight back against this is to decide to keep shtum. Ditch the soundbite. Don’t continue to feed the expectations inherent in the modern apology, and it will no longer be borne aloft by continual use. Of course, if you electively feel you need to make amends for your own behaviour at some points, then that’s fine; it’s as it ever was. All told, though, there are many occasions in my own life where I’ve apologised, only to realise with the benefit of hindsight that my behaviour was a completely proportionate reaction to someone else’s bullshit. In short, I had nothing to apologise for. This is just one person, one example, but I’m sure many of you will feel the same way. And, if we can get up the courage to forego this ritual on a personal level, then perhaps we can begin to withstand the constant demands being made elsewhere. In a world where an apology has become so mired in obligation and cowardice, the best, most manageable approach as we move forward is to offer no such thing.

KERI O’SHEA

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