This week, singer Cee-Lo Green tweeted that a rape is only a rape when the victim is conscious: “People who have really been raped REMEMBER!!!” and then deleted his ill-advised tweets on the subject. He then came back again to say sorry: “I sincerely apologize for my comments being taken so far out of context.” It stirred up such a shitstorm he has since deleted his account.
Let’s have a look at what went wrong with that apology. He didn’t say sorry for saying such a dreadful thing, instead he was sorry WE took his comments ‘out of context.’ This is the classic Non Apology. He might as well just have said, “My bad” – the ultimate Non Apology.
A few years ago, I came across a classic Non Apologist who kept saying, “I’m sorry you feel like that,” whenever he did something to upset me. He was sorry I felt like that, not that he’d MADE me feel like that. I then discovered that this is a Thing. A deliberate tactic to avoid the allegedly huge climbdown of ego that is required for a proper apology. I hear it all the time now, so seeing Cee-Lo say it when he was so blatantly in the wrong *almost* made me laugh.
I dated a guy a couple of years ago whose mantra was, “never explain, never apologise.” It was one of those alarm-bell moments that made me think, “I’ll always explain, and I’ll always apologise.” (It also made me think, “Bye…”) It’s an apparent bastardisation of the Disraeli quote, “Never complain, never explain,” which Kate Moss subsequently nicked. I think I prefer Disraeli’s version.
I once had a relationship with someone who behaved dreadfully towards me, who knew he had, and kept trying to get me to meet him so he could force his Non Apology on me, with a full ‘mansplanation’ of why the relationship had broken down and he’d immediately found someone else. Because I refused to meet him I eventually got it by email: “I don’t think I did anything to you that I should feel ashamed of.” You go on telling yourself that, sunshine.
Anyway, the Cee-Lo story has really made me think about the Lost Art of Apologising and why we find it so difficult. Even a shove from a stranger on a busy pavement elicits a strange hissing sound as they start to say the word but it dies on their tongue. ‘My bad’ became the replacement ‘sorry’ for a while a few years ago but even that feels like it’s disappeared. The classic ‘I’m sorry you feel like that’ response is so ubiquitous now that even I’ve said it once or twice. I think it stinks.
I’m convinced that British people are more likely to say sorry when someone else has bumped into them at the supermarket checkout than if they themselves have really upset another person. In many cases, we’re offering up apologies all the time where they’re not required, and have become the butt of many an American joke because of it. Often, the worst offenders are women. We apologise for asking questions in the workplace: “Sorry, this is probably a stupid question, but…” and that drives me mad. I’ve trained myself not to do it after receiving some really good training some years ago where this tendency was pointed out. Never apologise for asking smart questions, ladies.
Now, I make a huge effort to say sorry when it matters. If I accidentally whack someone with my bag on the Tube I make a massive deal about looking them in the eye and apologising. There’s nearly always a scowl there when I do it, that immediately breaks as the words come out. They look genuinely shocked that I’ve managed to get beyond the ‘ssss’ to the full word.
I always find it easy to apologise for mistakes in the workplace (I have a ‘Hands Up It Was Me, Guv’ policy) but find it way more difficult to say I’m sorry in personal settings. I genuinely think it’s one of the bravest acts a person can carry out and the effect of it in most cases is to completely nullify the anger or hurt one has caused in the other person. Plus a serious weight is lifted off your chest once it’s done. People really respect you for it, and that’s because saying sorry takes guts.
Cee-Lo could have avoided all the shit if he’d just said sorry; that his comments were untrue, inappropriate and wrong. Simples. What he actually said is unfortunately what so many people would say these days, as they slip and slide away from taking full responsibility for their words and deeds.
Some refuse to apologise for their words under the banner of ‘freedom of speech’: earlier this week, the Twitter troll who victimised Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy with rape threats last year, who is now facing jail, said: “It is a sad day for free speech. I think my tweets have been misinterpreted.”
Well I think the saddest day for free speech is when people fail to freely say sorry to each other for causing very obvious distress and hurt.
Cee-Lo – just say the words and let’s all move on.