Apology Culture and the New Flagellants

Word Misappropriation. A verbal series. Part 5.

The best apology a person can give is to do better in the future.

And yet, there’s a whole culture of apology that has been formed.  There are apologetic tweets, statements and media tours for the more prolific amongst us. Apology videos on YouTube tend to all be so similar that there’s now a subset of people making videos satirizing them. You can pretty much guess how they’ll go.

In fact, it has become so popular to apologize that many do it without having even done anything to actually apologize for.

Canadians, in particular, are so infatuated with the art of apology that they can’t help but apologize to inanimate objects when they accidentally bump into them.

Is it a type of “areligious” self-flagellation, perhaps?  In actual religion, flagellation is the disciplinary or devotional practice of beating one’s self with whips (or other tools)—a way towards purification. Some may argue: masochism. Self-flagellation is often also seen as a form of punishment and penance.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with an apology. It can be a way of taking ownership and responsibility for a wrong action and providing the person who was wronged with an acknowledgement of that.  That’s how it is in a normal, healthy society. It helps restore and maintain relationships. There’s a necessity to it. It keeps a certain peace.

But when one apologizes excessively or without having really done anything wrong, it goes beyond a healthy relationship with the word “sorry.”

Ironically, an apology used to mean the opposite of what it seems to signify these days. If you talk to the Greeks and Romans, you’ll learn that it was in fact a defence against accusations. Take, for example, Plato’s Apology of Socrates where he attempts to exonerate his mentor and teacher against charges of impiety and “corrupting the youth” in 399 BC.  Naturally, though, the meaning of words changes over time, as does their use case.

So what’s behind this phenomenon of devout apologists? 

For some it could be the desire to avoid conflict.  They see over-apologizing as a way to minimize it, and in this way, defending themselves from greater attacks. Many psychologists see this as being connected to some childhood experiences, particularly within family environments. Placing others’ needs before one’s own would also fit into that category of behavior, usually motivated by a low sense of worth.  Unsurprisingly, such individuals are often perceived as being weak. One reason to never apologize if you haven’t done anything wrong.

Then there’s the desire to please people and be seen as “good.”

An apology can also be a way of hiding. If we say something a bit bolder and others find it disagreeable, the only way out of a public flogging seems to be if we do it to ourselves. On their part, the mob, which can no longer physically beat someone until their lights go out—for the most part—uses other tools to persuade the party they perceived to have wronged them into admission of guilt. So that they come begging for forgiveness. They act outraged, hurt, and angry until we give in and satisfy the public’s lust for blood. It’s a great alternative to a head on a spike.

Still, others hold the belief that by apologizing they can undo the harm they’ve caused. They seek absolution. More so to get rid of their guilt rather than take responsibility.  That sort of an apology, if warranted, tends to put pressure on the other person. The aggrieved party. After all, it comes with a certain request for forgiveness…and the other party may not be ready to forgive, or may not want to. And just as they are not compelled to forgive, no one has the right to demand an apology either.

Of course, there’s another type of apologist fanatic. The attention seeking variety.  They engage in a self-service performative act, often apologizing for the actions of others—taking on elements of their guilt. Their apologies serve little to no purpose and are done in public—with an audience.  Sometimes such tactics earn them a reward: Acceptance into the “in crowd.” All they need to do is apologize for their terrible privileges (past, present, and future) and actions of people they’ve never even known. Now that they’ve pre-apologized they are safe, right?

One has to wonder: Is all this moral outrage and onslaught of apologies doing anything to improve our society?  Do apologies spark sincere change? Does our demand of people to provide these apologies lead to any kind of compassion or forgiveness? Or are we engaging in some sort of an unhealthy relationship of sadism and masochism—where each may derive some pleasure, but neither party is ultimately left satisfied?

So, when charged with a crime you haven’t committed, perhaps it’s time to say: “I’m not sorry.” Even if someone claims to be offended.