In his recent op-ed, In Politics, Apologies Are for Losers, Professor Cass Sunstein suggests that an apology is a risky strategy for a public figure seeking “to increase the chance that he will be elected, get confirmed by the Senate or keep his job.” The conversation about Jane Meyer’s attempted rehabilitation of Al Franken and the suggestion that Franken has been and continues to be punished for apologizing seems to be the subtext. And other public figures such as Casey Affleck seem to be suggesting that silence, rather than accountability and amends or active denials and proof, is the best way to move forward. We respond here to three troubling aspects of Sunstein’s op-ed as the piece seems to both be a part of the latest turn in the national #MeToo conversation as well as an attempt to shape it.
Second, and related, the op-ed reflects the tendency to think of apologies as an on/off switch in that they are appropriately assessed at a single point in time. Many offenders in the #MeToo era and society at large seem surprised that a single apology is not sufficient to rehabilitate standing. But successful apologies for truly outrageous or despicable behavior are often embedded in a much larger process of amends making. (And many apologies—good and bad—unfold over time.) As we have written about across different contexts, amends making is not solely about a single statement of contrition, but includes ongoing evidence of responsibility-taking, remorse, and changed behavior and beliefs. Sunstein suggests that a simple apology may decrease support because it makes “wrongdoing more salient.” And it is true that part of what an apology does is to admit responsibility for wrongdoing. But his studies describe wrongdoing immediately followed by a single (and, as we noted above, unspecified) apology. More interesting, we think, would be studies that compare simple apologies to larger amends making projects or ones that ask about standing a year or five years after the apology. Without such studies, it’s hard to know whether Sunstein is capturing the salience of the wrongdoing or concerns about insincerity. While public figures might have good reasons to care deeply about short-term status outcomes, most of them ought to care about long-term status outcomes as well.
Third, we feel compelled to fight the hypothetical. Professor Sunstein carefully and explicitly limits himself to a public figure whose sole goal is “to improve his standing.” Other studies have found that improved standing or image can indeed be a consequence of making amends. But while some may presume that improving their image is the predominant or sole motivation of political actors, this is a problematic presumption to reinforce. Al Franken’s apologies might have been ineffective at restoring his political standing in that moment. But apologies are by their nature not solely designed to improve the status of the giver, but rather ought to help restore the position of the recipient. A voluminous literature exists that explores when and how apologies might restore the status of the victim. That restoration ought to be a central part of the #MeToo conversation. As so often happens, the discussion has disproportionately focused on the question of when wrongdoers may return or move forward, or what serves the interests of the accused, while placing relatively less emphasis on the needs of the victims and the rest of society.
More broadly, research has generally shown that apologies can serve a variety of purposes, including acknowledging the wrongdoing and the harm it caused, affirming the import of the violated rule, signaling that the offender will try to do better going forward, affirming the standing of the injured person, and moderating emotions such as anger. But as we have noted, apologies are nuanced. Whether or not the offender takes responsibility matters. The nature of the offense—for example, whether it was borne of incompetence or a lack of integrity—matters too, as does the severity of the harm. Even negotiated apologies can be effective.
So even if apologies do decrease the short-term status of the offender, a public-interest-minded public figure (which we hope is not an oxymoron) ought to think carefully about these other purposes. Think of DeKlerk’s apology for apartheid or the IRA’s apologies for killing “non-combatants” over the course of thirty years, both of which helped facilitate the peace processes. Rather than take the lesson that they’d be better off staying quiet, we’d prefer public figures study apologies and learn how to give and, perhaps more importantly, live a good one.