When I was a kid, I used to steal from my sister on a regular basis. Cassette tapes, dirty novels, hair clips, Game Boy cartridges. Every time she caught me—which was most of the time; I have all the cat-burgling skills of a dog—I’d apologize. And every time, she’d issue the same clarification: “You’re only sorry you got caught.” Fair point. It’s not like I felt guilty while I was pawing for bodice rippers under her bed. I only felt inconvenienced upon discovering that my actions had consequences. But I did learn that not all apologies are equal. So much so that in 2015 I wrote an op-ed for The New York Times about why women should stop apologizing for themselves so much. The piece went viral enough to land me on CBS This Morning, where I was interviewed by Charlie Rose, whose lack of interest in the subject no longer seems like a reflection of my ability to articulate it. You can see it in the clip: Every time the camera cuts to him, he’s picking sleep out of his eye. I mean, he’s really getting in there.
Now Rose, along with dozens of high-profile men including Matt Lauer, Al Franken and Louis C.K., have been forced to apologize to the point that the famous man’s mea culpa has become a burgeoning genre in itself—the Sexual Harasser’s Lament. Why, there’s even a “Watch the birdie!” subgenre in which men like Mario “the Cinnamon Roll” Batali and Kevin “I’m Gay!” Spacey toss red herrings at the problem. But for the most part the blame deflection is more deeply seated. Rose views his time in the hot seat as a personal boot camp, stressing what he’s “learned” and that “all of us…have come to a profound new respect for women and their lives.” Who, us? I have long had the perfect blend of respect and disrespect for my own life. Lauer is “humbled” and “blessed,” as though he’s about to lift up a statuette and thank God. Like Rose, he has spun the personal pain and professional setbacks of women into a teaching moment for himself. “The last two days have forced me to take a very hard look at my own troubling flaws,” he mused. I have a full-time job taking a hard look at my troubling flaws, and I didn’t have to touch anyone to get it. Louis C.K.’s apology, perhaps the best intentioned, is nonetheless missing the magic word. Harvey Weinstein, who seems driven to be the best at everything, including being the worst, is in conversation less with his victims than with the NRA, to which he plans on devoting his “full attention.”
The apologies come laced with the pompousness of the newly moral or with the brazen demand that we see their authors as wounded.
Apologies, by their nature, are imperfect because they’re delivered by people imperfect enough to warrant contrition. After centuries of apologizing for being bumped into, women are highly trained—like Liam Neeson very-particular-set-of-skills trained—in the art of the apology. But as bittersweet as the advantage we have in this department is, it’s still astounding how men can be so piss-poor at it. The phrase mea culpa literally means “through my fault,” meaning every grievous act passes through a single portal. There is no “I’m sorry you feel that way,” which puts the onus on the victim, or “consider the context,” which puts it on society, or “I have brought shame upon my family,” which…I don’t know what that is. We don’t live in feudal Japan. A pure apology is one rooted in accountability for yourself and regret for others, not the other way around.
If I empathize with these men at all, I empathize with them as writers. I certainly wouldn’t want this gig. No words are available to fix what’s been done, and even the acknowledgment of that futility is grating. Plus, direct admission of a crime is legally inadvisable, which means the center drops out of half these pronouncements before they begin. Still, the apologies come laced with the pompousness of the newly moral or with the brazen demand that we see their authors as wounded. Or else they blink at us with Bambi eyes, their tone reminiscent of a teenage shoplifter claiming not to know one has to pay for things in a store.
And yet, apologize they must! To have no comment is to tacitly admit their guilt or else expose their hope that if everyone stays very still, the storm will pass. It’s hard not to sense these men’s reliance on America’s short-term memory. I don’t blame them. But we do make exceptions. Ask Monica Lewinsky. We’re in the midst of a vital and exciting uprising of women’s voices and a long overdue shift in the power structure. But that’s not why this moment has staying power. It’s because once every handful of years, the same news story that graces the cover of Us Weekly also graces the front page of The New York Times. Which means it’s easy to follow. If you haven’t been keeping tabs on the Syrian civil war, it can feel prohibitively confusing to dive in now. But widespread sexual misconduct across every industry enables us to discuss a salacious topic at length, with authority and without guilt. It’s locked in.
So to the men penning these public apologies: It’s not that your words are falling on deaf ears. Oh, we’re listening all right. But what is meant to extricate you from the mess you’ve created and distance you from the damage you’ve caused only feeds the beast. And that’s good. It’s a good beast. It’s not out to get men or scare them into thinking they can’t make a dirty joke or have a crush on a woman at work ever again. It’s so much bigger than that. It’s a beast that has come to realign the world for our children, who have to grow up in it. It has been taking shape for decades—centuries, depending on how you clock it. And as your apologies keep coming, they make a dull buzzing sound around the beast’s ears. Like flies. Small. Manifold. Frantic. Irrelevant.