In Herb Gardner’s play “A Thousand Clowns,” the protagonist, Murray, has to get a job to ensure that he and his new girlfriend can retain custody of his abandoned nephew. After a long day of refusing work that doesn’t meet his standards, he arrives home and after a long speech about the power of saying “I’m sorry,” tells the love of his life that sometimes the best you can hope for in life is a really good apology. It’s a cop-out, the path of least resistance.
Over the past few years apologizing has become the new American pastime. Of late we have seen a student body president at the University of California-Los Angeles apologize for the white privilege he displayed in flashing a gang symbol in a photograph. Veterans have gotten on their knees to beg forgiveness from Native American tribes. A feminist journal has apologized for running a peer-reviewed essay that is allegedly insensitive to the transgender community, and the city of Philadelphia has apologized to Jackie Robinson for acts of racism committed more than a half a century ago.
Like Murray’s, all of these apologies in one way or another are a cop-out, a way to put an incident behind one without doing the hard work of discussing differing opinions and views. The gang sign was a joke, not an egregious act of cultural appropriation. Twenty-first-century veterans do not have the agency to apologize for acts committed long before they were born. The feminist journal is apologizing for presenting controversial material, and Jackie Robinson has been dead since 1972.
Its time to stop apologizing and start fighting back against forces in our culture, on all sides, who demand mea culpas as a way to disarm those they disagree with and avoid nuanced dialogue. It’s time to stop prostrating ourselves for words or actions that some people find offensive or over which we have absolutely no control.
Apologies In The Election
A central theme throughout the 2016 campaign was Donald Trump’s refusal (except for one occasion) to apologize for things that would have had any other candidate groveling for forgiveness. Whether it was his insults leveled at Rosie O’Donnell or Megyn Kelly, or his remarks about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, or his strange claim that he didn’t know who David Duke is, he steadfastly refused to apologize. This amazed people who watch politics, because we had assumed failure to apologize for such things would sink any candidate. Obviously, it did not.
On the other side, when attacked for her “basket of deplorables” comment, Hillary Clinton folded like a lawn chair, falling all over herself to apologize. In retrospect this was incredibly disheartening to many of her supporters, who finally saw her fighting back. They believed many of Trump’s supporters are, in fact, deplorable, and Clinton probably believed it too. Her chance to fire them up fizzled, and now that Trump is president, he and his supporters are regularly called far worse things than deplorable.
Hillary should have taken a page from her husband, who had his own flirtation with apology during the campaign. After some verbal sparring with Black Lives Matter activists, during which he defended his 1993 crime bill, people demanded that he apologize.
Here’s what he said: “So I did something yesterday in Philadelphia. I almost want to apologize for it…I rather vigorously defended my wife, as I am wont to do, and I realized, finally realized I was talking past [the demonstrator] the way she was talking past me, we got to stop that in this country. We got to [start] listening to each other again.”
It’s easy to see why Bill Clinton almost wanted to apologize. It would have been the fastest way to turn the page, to stop being the story. But he couldn’t. He believed what he was saying and refused to pretend he didn’t.
Apology In Academia
Last year, University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson made waves with a YouTube video in which said he would not refer to his students and colleagues with their preferred gender pronouns. Disciplinary actions began, along with the de rigueur demands for his sincere apology. Peterson, who argues political correctness may lead to totalitarianism, steadfastly refused to apologize.
In this case, much to its credit, his university had his back, and supported his intellectual openness and right to free speech. Peterson will not only be teaching his full slate of classes this year, his courageous risk has gained him a well-deserved following across the world from those who favor the open exchange of ideas.
But things do not always fare so well for professors adamant about colleges being centers of free and open thought. This year at Marquette, a Catholic university, professor John McAdams penned a blog post defending a student’s right to discuss his opposition to same-sex marriage in class. It’s a position shared by the pope.
A faculty panel suspended McAdams for his temerity, but this wasn’t enough for Marquette’s president, Michael Lovell, who demanded an apology. McAdams refused, and was summarily fired from his tenured position. This is an act of courage and sacrifice to be admired, but also a warning about what may happen to those of us who refuse to confess our sins against progressive orthodoxy.
The Ugly Side of Apology
Totalitarian regimes are rather famous for their use of coerced apologies. In particular, communist governments in China and the Soviet Union often carted some poor, offending soul out in front of crowd or camera to confess his terrible offenses against the sensibilities of the state. More recently, ISIS and North Korea have used this practice against their own people and foreigners they manage to capture.
While progressive American demands for apologies do not involve the use of physical force, as we see with McAdams they can come with considerable cost to those who refuse. They also almost always shut down important dialogue.
It should come as no surprise in an age where parents see their children being told to confess the privilege (read: sin) of being white, or male, or able-bodied, or the gender they were born as, that Trump’s refusals to apologize resonated so much. People are sick of it. Apologies do nothing to change the past and in many cases seem to promise more harm than good for the future.
Let’s stop demanding all these apologies. Let Stephen Colbert say crude things, let people have disagreements about what constitutes gender, let schools teach in an atmosphere of honest and open inquiry. And when people try to shut down those kinds of free speech, let’s stand up and utter a strong, stern “No.”
By the end of “A Thousand Clowns,” Murray takes a job and saves his family. It turns out a good apology isn’t the best we can hope for in life. We can do things we don’t want to do, hear things we don’t want to hear, help people we thought we were powerless to help. But all of this requires risk, including the risk of giving offense to others, and challenging ourselves in ways that aren’t always comfortable.
Enough with the apologies. You say what you think, I’ll say what I think, and we’ll both assume good intentions from each other. Let discussion once again be a prologue to positive change, not an inevitable path to a useless apology.