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Without Consequences, Public Apologies Equal Public Manipulation


Public figures often don’t seem to mind publicly acknowledging responsibility for their mistakes. In his recent Senate hearing responding to concerns over data privacy and Russian disinformation on his social network, for example, Mark Zuckerberg declared, “I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.”

Former secretary of state and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton famously asserted at a congressional hearing in 2015: “I take full responsibility for what happened in Benghazi.” Before that, prominent politicians John Edwards and Anthony Weiner both claimed “full responsibility” for their immoral sexual behavior.

Although a phrase imbued with a certain Ciceronian gravitas, it’s unclear what exactly it means to acknowledge “full responsibility” for wrongs committed. Given how often those who make such declarations never make restitution for their public sins, it may mean practically nothing, if not something worse.

The New Public Self-Flagellation

The Washington Post recently published an article cataloguing Zuckerberg’s public apologies related to managing Facebook, going back all the way to 2003. Yet a more-than-decades long “apology tour,” as one article called it, seems a bit disingenuous, especially in light of the bravado Zuckerberg has shown on other occasions.

In a 2017 letter to the world he seemed to suggest Facebook was the future “global community,” transcending national boundaries and solving many of our world’s ills. God bless Facebook! As some critics have noted, many of his philanthropic activities, however noble, border on the arrogant in their scope, magnitude, and impracticality.

Of course, Zuckerberg notoriously called early users of Facebook “dumb f-cks” for handing over personal data. It’s certainly fair and charitable to believe Zuckerberg’s many apologies are sincere, but they may also reflect a larger socio-cultural trend in the United States that demands he perform such behavior.

Often when a public personality is involved in some great mistake or crisis, he or she is quick to declare “full responsibility.” Even many sports figures, such as athletes and coaches, also do this. Yet rather than being a legitimate, humble apology that stems from a sincere desire for metanoia, this may simply be mimicking the behavior they have observed from other public miscreants. The pervasiveness of the phrase amounts to a new form of self-flagellation, reminiscent of public figures who once endured public humiliation as penance for their crimes.

English King Henry II, for example, submitted to public flogging, endured as penance for ordering the death of his once-friend, the Archbishop Thomas a Becket. Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, alternatively, kneeled in the winter snow outside the Italian castle of Canossa, awaiting the forgiveness of Pope Gregory VII. Gregory had excommunicated Henry for his many attempts to undermine — if not possibly assassinate — the Roman pontiff.

The image of a penitent Zuckerberg, Hillary, or Weiner is in a sense a recapitulation of this ancient political drama. Yet the pain from such public acknowledgments amounts to little more than the humiliation of saying one is sorry in front of a microphone, recorded for the viewing public. This is a far cry from those historical public penances. Those reaffirmed the world order of the premodern world, where politics and politicians did not claim to determine morality, but were subject to moral judgment from an external religious authority.

A Meaningless Ritual, or Something Worse?

In response to the 2012 sexual scandal that plagued presidential hopeful Edwards, and his subsequent apology and admission of “full responsibility,” NPR observed: “as is usually the case, however, it’s very difficult to tell what that means. [Edwards] agrees to accept undetermined consequences? He agrees not to deny things that did, in fact, occur? Or does it just mean, ‘I believe my road to redemption should officially start now’?”

Indeed, when public personalities accept full responsibility, it’s anyone’s guess what they actually mean, as they, perhaps purposefully, rarely explain. Commenting on Hillary’s willingness to “take full responsibility,” Bernard Goldberg in 2014 argued that the phrase is largely meaningless. Reflecting upon the actual consequences for those examples cited above, it certainly seems that way.

Four U.S. citizens died at Benghazi under Secretary of State Clinton’s watch. Conspiracy theories regarding her exact role in that aside, if the former head diplomat is willing to take “full responsibility,” was she not expressing a willingness to accept some repercussion for this failure? Yet there was no fine, no jail time, no decision to exempt herself from public service.

Indeed, given her subsequent presidential run, her acceptance of full responsibility almost seemed to be a bullet point on her resume, as if to declare, “I accepted full responsibility for a mistake I made, and that demonstration of humility and responsibility makes me a better candidate for the presidency.”

What will Zuckerberg’s public penance be? Removing himself from Facebook’s leadership? That’s doubtful. Will he financially compensate or make any other amends to those harmed by his irresponsibility regarding personal data? There’s no indication that’s coming.

Former congressman Weiner’s original acknowledgment of responsibility might have suggested he was done with politics, yet in 2013 he ran for mayor of New York, staying in the race even after it was revealed he was sexting other women after earlier repudiating his own misbehavior. At least Weiner’s now in prison for sexting with a 15-year-old girl, but this was certainly not an outcome the former politician ever expressed a desire to undergo.

To take full responsibility does seem to be meaningless, but that may be letting such public penitents off the hook. When a public figure accepts responsibility for his misbehavior, without actually communicating any explicit consequences or suffering that follow his mea culpa, this is a soft manipulation of the public.

“I erred,” the penitent declares, “but I’ll acknowledge my culpability, because I’m a more mature adult.” Yet what maturity or humility is it to wax eloquently about one’s willingness to be held accountable, without subjecting oneself to any mechanisms that would manifest a true repentance?

These insouciant public statements amount to an equivalency with the oft-heard faux apology, “If I ever did you wrong, I’m sorry.” Of course you did something wrong. That’s why we expect an apology, an explicit recognition of the transgression, and a clear accounting of what will be done to remedy that wrong. If public personalities really desire our respect, those three actions, at least, are required.