We are now living in a post-apology America. The Trump Presidency has caused a lot of us to think about the world in apocalyptic terms because of the violence he is doing to our political conventions and social norms. The truth is that the worst of what is going on is about the rest of us and not about him- no matter how unfit, ill-suited and catastrophic he may be. But I still believe that we’ll survive his time and emerge better for the lessons. There is some evidence indicating that one day soon- maybe even real soon- we’ll wake up to find ourselves in disaster clean-up mode as the POTUS #45 storm will be over.
But OUR behavior recently has me much more concerned. Not too long ago, it mattered if a person offered a sincere apology for an offense committed or for harm done. Acknowledging intentional wrong-doing or even unintentional error was something that earned a person some measure of respect or even a little bit of forgiveness. That is not the case anymore. It is now very unwise to apologize if you have anything at all to lose. And what is most disconcerting is that the institution of the apology is being attacked with equal force from opposite directions: those who actually intend to advance the greater good are on the attack as are those who don’t give a damn about anybody but themselves. That is the #MeToo movement as the former and the loud and proud Trumpists as the latter.
Let’s review a sampling of the men who have recently screwed up and then offered a public apology: Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, and Al Franken. All big time players and famous men whose next public appearance will be on a milk carton. This despite the undeniable fact that they were each in a full career upswing that reflected some combination of artistic relevance, commercial viability or political efficacy.
But in a blink it was all gone- almost like they’ve been erased from the landscape they had once navigated so successfully.
Now let’s take a sampling of the men who obviously screwed up but instead of apologizing denied everything, attacked everybody and threw up “the bird” to polite society: Donald Trump, Roy Moore and Steven Wynn. Each of these men has maximized his utility for all practical purposes and not a single one of them has lost anything of substantive value that he had as a result of the allegations. Roy Moore losing the special election in Alabama does not count because he never held the seat to begin with. His winning was not a certainty. What is for sure is that he is more popular in his world now than he ever was before the news broke of his taste for tweens. And its not like Roy Moore had ANY cross-over appeal whatsoever. If he can get 70% of white women in Alabama to vote for him after hearing the sickening allegations against him he is GOLDEN as long as he stays close to home. So ol’ Roy has lost nothing.
What is the message we are sending? We all know that behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated. So if those who make blanket denials and launch hostile attacks on accusers get to keep their goodies but those who even intimate that they are sorry get crucified what do we think is going to happen? Nobody will apologize anymore, positions will harden and our feelings toward the issue will follow suit. Can we really afford that if we are trying to reconstruct our culture after we get rid of Trump and the toxic, predatory maleness he represents?
When a person admits that they have done something wrong and extends an apology to who they have wronged it should help to restore order and lay the groundwork for a reconciliation at some point in the future. But what we have seen is a thirst for punishment and banishment- a palpable desire to ruin the wrong-doer- that overpowers every other consideration.
Many of us have displayed a blood-lust reflex that forces us to stand against everything that the wrong-doer has ever done. His jokes used to be funny but we can’t laugh at them anymore. His movies used to be great but they all suck now. His TV show was highly entertaining and culturally relevant but it can’t be watched anymore. He might actually reap a financial benefit from the work that he did before and we can’t have that. Beyond being harmful and unnecessary, that reflex is very uncool.
We don’t have to look very far to see where this recent phenomenon ends- and if we are smart we won’t want to wind up there. What has happened to Woody Allen is crazy as hell and from what I’ve seen only Alec Baldwin has the balls to say so loudly and publicly. Woody has suddenly found himself bound to the stake in the town square more than twenty years after the allegations against him were ADJUDICATED. So we are not even talking about punishment and banishment post-apology, we are talking about punishing and banishing a man post-exoneration. That is a serious problem. However people feel about the allegations made against Allen, if his case has been twice investigated by two separate law enforcement agencies in two states and neither found grounds to bind him over for prosecution, that is a closed case.
You don’t have to like the man, but you do have to respect the operation of our judicial system because without it we will have anarchy and mob rule. Now all of these years after the investigation was closed, several award winning movies later, and not even a peep of trouble about him from any direction, Woody is persona non grata in Hollywood. You actually have actors who worked with him successfully before promising never to work with him again, apologizing for having worked with him at all and giving away the money that they earned working on his movies.
That is completely ridiculous. That kind of hysterical response is why people are often so contemptuous of Hollywood activism. And it makes the opposite position seem like the rational position to take: apologizing equals death so never apologize. In fact, if you attack your accuser’s character you can muddy the water, make it a swearing contest in the court of public opinion and anybody who was with you before will probably still be with you when it is all said and done.
That is what is going on in politics and in Hollywood right now and like everything else it is only a matter of time before we see it as a norm everyplace else.
So we need to be careful that we are not driving down the value of the apology in our fervor to right past wrongs and rebuild our culture without the pervasive misogyny. Right now apologizing looks like all risk and absolutely no reward and do we really want a world where a person can’t just admit that they screwed up and promise to be better if given a chance? Is it better to have everybody launch into deny and deflect mode? Victim blaming mode? Slut shaming mode? If we do that we’ll have Trump setting the tone for our culture long after he is gone.