Pet Peeve: Pre-Emptive Refusal to Apologize

Imagine that you were the head of a family-owned business that went bankrupt. At your closing board meeting, someone screams at you for putting aside some of the remaining funds for severance packages for long-time employees rather than devoting all the money to paying off bondholders.

So denounced, you might say “If you want an apology, forget it! I am not ashamed of helping people who loyally worked for my family for decades”.

You have been condemned for doing something of which you are not ashamed and indeed something you think is wrong to condemn at all. It is therefore perfectly reasonable for you to explicitly refuse to apologize as a way to stand up for your values.

BUT, refusal to apologize sure grates when no one has requested the apology.

Example #1: During the 2012 Presidential nomination race, Governor Rick Perry ran television spots in Iowa saying that he wasn’t ashamed of his Christian faith.

Who in Iowa ever said he *should* be ashamed of his faith? Who in the whole country said so? When in the history of the United States has *any* candidate been asked to apologize for being religious?

This is pre-emptive non-apology as self-flattery. Perry portrays himself as bravely facing down hordes of opponents who never condemned him in the first place. I didn’t know Saint Stephen, but Governor Perry, you are no Saint Stephen.

Example #2: In a widely circulated email, a college professor says “It’s about time we had a U.S. drug czar who is a person of color. I make no apology for my radical stance.”

Wow, that is so unapologetically *radical*. Where is my black beret when I need it? The problem for this rebel in ivy is that two of the six white house drug control policy office directors were people of color (Lee Brown and Bob Martinez), and no one ever said that was in any way problematic.

Again, pre-emptive apology as self-flattery. She is the one person brave enough to shock the complacent bourgeosie and their bigoted fellow travelers by proposing that the U.S. finally do something that it has done already. Would that we all had her courage and moral vision.

Summary of my old man’s rant: I want self-aggrandizing people to start apologizing for pre-emptively refusing to apologize when no one asked them to apologize in the first place.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

20 thoughts on “Pet Peeve: Pre-Emptive Refusal to Apologize”

  1. While wrong, the unnamed rebel in ivy, probably meant that someone with a closer personal experience of the drug war’s unintended consequences should be appointed drug czar. Maybe he feels that Lee Brown (law enforcement) and Bob Martinez (religious right)where not true to their “color.” Personally, I doubt that the color or ethnicity of person really matters. Drug Czars are appointed based upon their unrealistic view of drug use. Most seem to ignore the average person’s experience with drug use, which is positive. It’s a propaganda position so there isn’t much hope that the drug czar will one day tell the president to end the drug war.

    It might be more radical to have a drug czar who has experience personally using drugs. Someone who didn’t abuse, but had the normal, positive experience (like most people have with alcohol). Of course that personal drug experience hasn’t helped the president much, since he still believes in fighting all drug use (positive or negative) with force.

    1. I don’t think that your explanation really improves what she said. She’s either ignorant of the facts or (as you suggest) she’s making a larger, slightly insane argument that basis for racial membership isn’t biological but is determined instead by one’s career choices. I think it’s far more likely that she just didn’t know who Lee Brown is.

  2. In Perry’s case, isn’t he playing that “persecuted Christian” card that so many in his community seem to get off on? I don’t understand it very well, because I have a very low tolerance for paying attention to nuttery. But it does seem to be a real thing.

    In the second case, there may be an allusion to a “persecution” that’s actually considerably more real (new Jim crow, etc.), even if it isn’t accurate in terms of the office – as mentioned.

  3. If I recall, Keith Ellison faced demands that he apologize for his religion. I wonder why him, and not anyone else? Hmm…

  4. Eli and H. Beaver: No doubt there are people who would say that Perry is justified and the errant professor isn’t. But I will stick with holding everyone to the same standard.

    1. I would say that Perry is “justified” because, in fact, Christians are not in any sense persecuted in a country where they are the dominant religion and every day are pushing to I pose their beliefs on others. So I think that your analysis is correct as to Perry—his was a self congratulatory “apology” that was, if anything more evocative of your point because of its obvious insincerity.

      1. I would say that Perry is not “justified” because, in fact, Christians are not in any sense persecuted in a country where they are the dominant religion and every day are pushing to I pose their beliefs on others. So I think that your analysis is correct as to Perry—his was a self congratulatory “apology” that was, if anything more evocative of your point because of its obvious insincerity.

          1. I would like to credit my years as a lawyer for the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in my minds at the same time (especially if there’s money involved) but in this instance the credit goes not to the ability to “think like a lawyer” but to a combination of poor proof reading, blogging on an iPad and commenting on a blog where the software does not allow editing. Sorry.

  5. My pet peeve is when people preface an insincere apology with the phrase “If anyone was offended…” knowing full well that many were offended.

    1. @Vadranor: I hate that too, not just for the reason you state because it puts them one step away from what they did (akin to “mistakes were made”). It shouldn’t be “I apologize if anyone was offended”, it should be “I apologize to the people I offended”.

  6. Mine is when someone — politicians especially — have done something deliberate, such as committing a crime or adultery, and apologize for their “mistake.”

    1. They may be sincerely regretful. Not for the crime or the sin but for the mistake of getting caught.

  7. Summary of my old man’s rant: I want self-aggrandizing people to start apologizing for pre-emptively refusing to apologize when no one asked them to apologize in the first place.

    I’m sorry, but I refuse to apologize for that.

    How was that? 😉

  8. How about the use of “at risk” as an adjective without specifying what in blue blazes someone is at risk of? As in “at risk kids” or something similar. It seems to be a dog whistle of some kind but I’m not sure for what.

  9. The thing is, most people do this, because most people identify as either a moderate/centrist/middle-path/third way/new way/sensible/cooperative/pragmatist (or insert any of a hundred other words meaning “middle”)… or they regard themselves as bleeding-edge radicals. And this trick works for both groups.

    People who imagine themselves at the very middle of the bell curve, with millions of people jostling to hold exactly the beliefs they hold, will “refuse to apologize” because they want to call attention to all those millions of people of whom they are the statistical epicenter.

    People who fancy themselves radical, disruptive, transgressive, lone-wolf desperadoes on a mission to wake up the sheeple at all costs, by contrast, will “refuse to apologize” because they’re annoyed that nobody asked them to, because nobody is paying much attention.

    The thing is, that’s what rhetoric is. When you play this trick–or when you write the column ranting about it–you’re saying to the world, “I’m going to make you feel differently about this topic than you presently do, and if I do a good job, you’ll even feel the way I want you to.” And there are a million ways to do it, and none of them pass logical muster, and complaining about one probably encourages more people to do it, because that’s evidence that it works.

  10. This is analogous to the person who *brags* about how they aren’t afraid of unlimited and secret government surveillance. They boast about how they *are* sheep, and aren’t afraid to admit it.

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