TCS Daily


Sorrowless Sorries

By Robert McHenry - April 7, 2006 12:00 AM

I Apologize.

Events occurred. Words were uttered. Umbrage was taken. Criticism was offered. Regret was expressed. Thank you.

As you can easily tell, I'm practicing to go into politics. This is my prepared speech for when I mess up big time. Actually, I won't be saying any of that, so it's not strictly a speech. Rather, my spokesentity will issue it as a "statement," meaning something that no one has actually stated, least of all me or the spokesentity. Our hands will remain clean, our souls pure as the driven snowjob.

You think I jest, but observe:

"I am sorry that this misunderstanding happened at all and I regret its escalation, and I apologize. There should not have been any physical contact in this incident."

Thus did Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Mordor) seek to extract herself from a hole of her own digging by pretending that in fact the ground around her had suddenly lurched upward. The "misunderstanding" between her and a Capitol guard "happened," much as earthquakes happen to those unfortunate to be standing in the wrong place. Moreover, it somehow "escalated," possibly powered by tiny internal atomic motors secretly developed at Area 51. To top it all off, there was physical contact -- not in the merely pedestrian sense that someone touched, with purpose aforethought and some degree of vigor, someone else, but purely as an impersonal natural occurrence, doubtless the last link in a chain of blind causation reaching right back to the Big Bang itself. The words "I apologize" evidently refer to the fact that McKinney was, by happenstance, present. This she no doubt sincerely regrets.

Bad things happen to good people, and between them. That's just how it is in this vale of tears. We are mere puppets, sport of the gods, buffeted hither and thither by chance and forces beyond our ken. Remember Janet Jackson's Super Bowl appearance? Her fellow victim, Justin Timberlake, issued this statement afterward:

"I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance at the Super Bowl. It was not intended and is regrettable."

Notice that this statement could, with perfect aptness, have been issued by anyone on the planet, whether present at the event or not. I, too, am sorry if anyone was offended; aren't you? Aren't we all?

By the way, did anyone ever explain what was intended to happen when he yanked at that piece of breastplate? What would a properly functioning costume have done? Slapped him? Just wondering.

When one of our public figures says "I'm sorry" in this way, what we are meant to infer is that there is actual sorrow behind the words, that the speaker takes responsibility for some admitted offense and repents of it. What is artfully said, however, is quite different and much less: "I'm sorry" is shorthand for "I concur in the general view that it is unfortunate that such-and-such thing took place, though I don't in any way admit to being at fault or even necessarily involved."

The provincial government of British Columbia has lately recognized the growing importance of this special sense of "I'm sorry" and has introduced legislation to allow citizens and public officials and business firms to say they are sorry for something without thereby admitting any legal liability. If the legislation passes we may expect an avalanche of sorrowless sorries from BC as everyone rushes to associate him- or her- or itself in ruing every evil or only unfortunate deed since Eden. They will, to their chagrin, discover that the Anglican Church has long since held the initiative in issuing apologies for matters that they had no hand in.

Many partisan or simply superficial scholars will attribute this devolution of meaning to Richard Nixon, who famously explained away the Watergate unpleasantness by noting that "mistakes were made" without ever attributing them to any makers. For Nixon such a "mistake" was causa sui, a self-caused cause that just sort of existed. It is possible that he encountered this idea in his reading of Aquinas or Spinoza, but I think it likelier that he adopted it from Brenda Lee. In her 1960 recording of - yes, you guess it - "I'm Sorry," she deftly abjured any responsibility for a love gone sour:

You tell me mistakes
Are part of being young,
But that don't right
The wrong that's been done.

Songs were sung. Lyrics were listened to. Lessons were learned. A presidency fell. I wasn't anywhere near the place, I swear.

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopdia Britannica, and author of How to Know (Booklocker.com, 2004).

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7 Comments

A reading of this was funny

Hilarious!
That was a great take on Cynthia's drive-by apology.

British Columbia
I do not know the proposal in British Columbia but I think it would make it possible to make apologies with actual expression of guilt.

If I make a mistake and know it, I believe I am man enough to apologize and express i publicly. But if I face a lawsuit because of it, I keep my mouth shut! No question about that.

What she really said was...
The segment of her "statement" that caught my attention was "No physical contact should have occurred."

In other words, "He touched me first!!!"

This is the best example of a non-apology I've ever seen.

regards,
Doug

I didn't know the gun was loaded
and I'm so sorry my friend
I didn't know the gun was loaded
and I'll never ever do it again.

Those of us old enough to remember that song recognize a meaningless apology. It's similar to a young child's attempt to escape punishment.

The only thing...
The only thing which could make the voters in Georgia look any dumber than they already are is if they actually continue to re-elect that walking pile of manure.

Opps! Those words could have offended!

Umm..

Words were spoken. Offense was taken, and it is regrettable. No one should have taken offense from words which should have remained unoffensively perceived, and I apologize for their lack of any ability to understand.

You know what I'd like to see? A cage match between good ol Cynthia, Shelia Jackson Lee, Ariana Hufflepuff, and Tereza HEIL Kerry! Who would walk out alive? (hopefully no one.)

Argh.

Don't watch the Maher video folks, it'll make your brain hemorrhage.

I'm sorry Rep. McKinney wasn't jailed
I'm sorry Rep. McKinney wasn't jailed immediately.

The guards had a duty to stop people from bypassing security. I hope deadly force is authorized.

What has Rep. McKinney's actions shown about Congress' security and national security?

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