You have to admit they’re getting better — they’re getting better all the time.
And by “they” I mean the apologies currently on tour through the headlines and social media sphere, a chorus of mea culpas from powerful men who have suddenly found themselves in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
What began with Harvey Weinstein’s attempt to caveat his transgressions by claiming that he “came of age… when the rules about behaviour and workplaces were different” has morphed into increasingly well-edited statements of atonement. Who knows? Maybe by the time the hundredth serial sexual harasser has been outed in a media investigation, that guy will have so many examples of what not to do that he might pull off a perfect apology!
After all, the apologisers are already catching on. Well, sort of. Kevin Spacey was able to improve upon Weinstein’s acknowledgement of guilt, though he wound up working against himself by turning his own admission into a coming out speech. (Not the right time, dude.) Learning from those mistakes, Louis C.K. did a significantly better job than his predecessors by ending on the feminist-approved assurance that, moving forward, he planned to take “a long time to listen.” But the comedian lost points for failing to use some integral words in his 500-word response — like “sorry,” apologise,” and “apology.” Still, given that he didn’t use it as an opportunity to make a personal confession or discredit his abusers, it’s fair to say that C.K. was on the right apology track.
But then: Why shouldn’t these statements have been getting better over the last six weeks? (Yep. Six weeks. Not the eternity it feels like.) It’s not as though their authors are writing them blind. These are high-powered, high profile men with image consultants, attorneys, and PR teams paid handsomely to deal with exactly these kinds of crises; and, in some cases, masters of story craft themselves. Surely they should be able to put those teams, and skills, to better use. And if they don't want to go the professional route? Not a problem. The apology style guide is being revised in real time, by armchair editors and experts across the internet; plus, there are plenty of primary sources to consult — also known as women.
Open to another tack? Try the convenient celebrity perv apology generator. Or, as Bitch Media founder Andi Zeisler suggested on Twitter: Perhaps the most equitable move would be hiring women to write all future public apologies because “jfc these dummies are doing a piss-poor job of it.” Whatever works.
Witnessing the editing process can be an education in itself, too, if you’re paying attention. Take, for example, Al Franken’s first attempt at an apology to Leeann Tweeden, who provided photographic evidence of the comedian-turned-Democratic senator pretending to grab her breasts while she slept. His original response? He didn’t recall the incident burned so deeply into Tweeden’s memory, but sent his “sincerest apologies,” adding that while “the photo was clearly intended to be funny” now he knows he shouldn’t have done it. When that went predictably badly, he attempted a revised draft that did a considerably better job of not blowing off Tweeden’s lived experience and taking accountability for his behaviour. He even expanded the script, extrapolating to the bigger picture about how women need to be respected and believed.
You know that was a good edit because it stuck. Legendary media figure Charlie Rose has already used a similar line in his own apology statement this week. “It’s essential that women know I hear them,” his remarks read, amid expressions of what appear to be genuine remorse. But Rose — who gave unwanted shoulder massages to female staffers often enough that the behaviour came to be known as the “crusty paw” — also claimed that he always thought he was “pursuing mutual shared feelings, even though now I realize I was mistaken.” Credit has been docked from this apology for being in violation of a key tenet of sincerity: “I’m sorry” doesn’t have the same effect when you end with an excuse.
But, however flawed, at least these men are trying. Of the 33 so far who have been accused since October 5, some aren’t anywhere near willing to consider that they crossed a line, much less apologise for how their actions impacted others, regardless of intent. James Toback — who was accused by hundreds of women claiming that they were dry humped, forced to watch him masturbate, or otherwise harassed by the director — sent a colourful denial of all allegations to The Los Angeles Times. The actor Andy Dick went a more blunt route: “I might have kissed somebody on the cheek to say goodbye and then licked them... I’m not trying to sexually harass people.” Director Brett Ratner is already gearing up for a libel lawsuit; Roy Moore, a candidate for US Senate in Alabama, has called the coverage of the serious accusations against him “fake news.” (Speaking of the groper-in-chief, though he may have “written” The Art of the Deal, he should consider splashing out on The Art of the Apology, especially if has any pussy grabbing plans on the horizon. It’s a tough crowd out here.)
But whether the statement is “I’m sorry” or “I didn’t do it,” the end goal is the same. Eventually, the accused are hoping the miasma will dissipate so they can move on with their lives. Which brings up a point that Sarah Silverman made earlier this month about how we’ll recover from the era we're living through, which is starting to look a lot like the final scene of Fight Club when all the buildings blow up. What do you do when someone you love is also the “masturbating elephant in the room?” she asked. There is no definitive answer; it’s something we’re working through, together. “It’s vital that people are held accountable for their actions, no matter who they are. We need to be better. We will be better," Silverman said. "I can’t fucking wait to be better.”
So how to we become fucking better? It's actually pretty simple, once you get the hang of it. Start by knowing it's wrong to touch anyone’s genitals on the House floor. Don't surprise people who work for you by taking your dick out and masturbating in front of them. Torch the casting couch. The next time you find yourself calling your intern to tell them your fantasies: Please don't. While you’re at it, don’t enter the fray as a harassment apologist. Because the truth is that there's no such thing as a perfect apology (even though yes, it's worth trying to give the best one you've got). The best thing you can offer all women is not doing the shitty thing that requires "I'm sorry" in the first place.