An apology has the power to heal and redeem both the accuser and the accused. Nearly four years since the #MeToo movement spurred global awareness for sexual harassment, the movement’s effects are still being felt, and public apologies for sexual misconduct continue to be issued, with varying degrees of remorse. But well before the advent of social media, mankind has always singled out cases and made an example of an offender. When transparency of sexual misconduct could spell loss of career, influence and livelihood, an admission of guilt is our society’s idea of public lashings. But who stands to gain more from today’s myriad public apologies: the victims or the aggressors?
Here are three reasons why public apologies are helpful and three why they are harmful:
The Good in a Public Apology
A public apology is the aggressor acknowledging guilt, which provides some sense of closure for the victim. Where there is trauma, closure can be the difference between lifelong scars and some form of peace. When victims of sexual harassment or assault come forward with their claims, like the women who came forward against Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby, among others, they put themselves on the line with no guarantee of closure. For some of these victims, feelings of loss of control and self are all common symptoms of trauma. Recovery can take a lifetime, but a public apology has the potential to diffuse the feelings of helplessness caused by sexual assault trauma and provide closure. If a public apology is not forthcoming from the alleged offender, a guilty verdict in court may help bring some justice, and with it some form of closure.
Keeping the Conversation Going
A public statement reminds our short-term memories that misconduct is not just an isolated incident and invites the opportunity for reflection, for change. Once a public apology addresses the elephant in the room, action must be taken. When a public figure is in the spotlight of a scandal, everyone around them becomes involved in the conversation. For example, when allegations of sexual assault came out against Louis C.K., his close friend, Sarah Silverman, was among the first to comment. As the allegations were confirmed, more comics made statements fueling the conversation. Marc Maron, Jon Stewart and Bill Burr, were among friends and co-workers weighing in on the ugliness. A public apology fans the flame of interest and has the potential to spark further debate, which, ultimately, may bring awareness to sensitive issues like holding people accountable for their actions, which may further legitimize the victims’ feelings.
An Opportunity for Rehabilitation
A public apology opens the way for wide-scale rehabilitation. It seems that we, as a society, are finally evolving from an environment that has long pushed sexual harassment under the rug to one that acknowledges that to create a brighter future, we must acknowledge our past. No matter why sexual predators and harassers, including talented and powerful men like Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer and Les Moonves, adopted their inappropriate (and maybe even criminal) behavior, their recognition of it is the first step in correcting it and making amends with their victims, families, friends and fans. Society is only as strong as its weakest link. A public apology is an open letter saying the guilty are ready to learn; accepting a public apology says that society is ready to rebuild.
The Harm In a Public Apology
In some cases, the public apology has come across as more like a non-apology. After being accused of sexual harassment by three different women, two of whom were former aides, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was criticized for his apology because it focused more on his alleged actions having been misinterpreted instead of the alleged actions themselves. This can make it seem like the public apology has turned into an appeal for sympathy. Take, for instance, Kevin Spacey’s statement in 2017 addressing allegations that he molested then-14-year-old actor Anthony Rapp. His non-apology opened by claiming not to remember the incident, distancing himself off the bat. He closed with the revelation that he is now committed to living a homosexual lifestyle. This patronizing and narcissistic statement attempts to transform outrage into pride and almost asks us to consider him brave. Not to mention the harm his statement caused to the LGBTQ community, who have been fighting the stigma of pedophilia for decades. Disingenuous apologies that read as excuses are merely excuses.
Offering the Abuser a Public Platform Can Crush Victims’ Voices
For victims who speak out post-trauma, it can be isolating and humiliating. Just ask Anita Hill, whose character and credibility were torn to shreds in front of the entire nation back in 1991. Such isolation is especially felt when seemingly repentant figures subsequently contradict their own public apologies. Society may call for public apologies, especially in cases of sexual misconduct, but it clearly still trades on power and publicity. When one of the most powerful men in the country cast doubt on the very reason he needed to issue a public apology in the first place, he minimalized his victims’ experiences, thus making them feel even more silenced.
An Apology from a Template Loses its Impact
Negative attention is part and parcel of being a public figure. There is a protocol to a public apology that has the monotonous feel of writing lines on a chalkboard. In fact, apologygenerator.com can offer you very real apologies taken from current events, spliced together by writer Dana Schwartz. If you flick through enough of them, you will see a pattern forming: Strong association with a positive cause, secondary recognition of actions, and a promise to do better. It seems that writing a public apology is the new press release.
The Bottom Line: A public apology for sexual misconduct is owed as an admission of guilt and a step to healing. But who does the public apology benefit more, the abuser or the victim of sexual abuse or harassment?