The Paradox of Public Apologies

Public apologies are a dying political art. Like iambic pentameter and film photography, public apologies exact a heavy toll on those who try them. There is seemingly no way to do apologize well enough to appease the masses mostly because the proportion and timing of an apology will rarely fit the nature of the act that prompted the need. Politicians who attempt to seek redemption from the masses risk apologizing either too little and too late or too much and too often. 

For example, Canada’s PM Justin Trudeau has been known to apologize too much for things that seem inane. He apologized far too many times for bumping into a fellow lawmaker in 2016, in a scandal that has become known as Elbowgate. More recently, he apologized for eating a chocolate bar during a vote in the House of Commons. In fact, Trudeau has offered more public apologies than any previous Canadian Prime Minister. And while many of these apologies have been very necessary and appropriate, such as when he has offered apologies for Canada’s past mistreatment of marginalized groups, the smaller, inane apologies threaten to undermine the impact and legitimacy of the larger, important apologies. After all, if Trudeau is willing to hand out apologies left and right to anyone and everyone no matter how small the matter, the value of each of his mea culpas is diminished. It is better to apologize rarely and only when absolutely necessary, right?

On the flip side, many politicians offer apologies that are both too small and too late to do much good. A clear example comes from the recent apology by Hong Kong’s executive, Carrie Lam, for seeking to impose an extradition law that would see Hong Kong residents prosecuted in China, which could give China a way to crackdown on activists that the Chinese government sees as threats. Lam’s apology has not stopped nearly 2 million residents from flooding the streets in protest. After her apology, activists made it clear that only her resignation would satisfy them. Granted, as the Washington Post explained, “the position of the chief executive of Hong Kong is an almost impossible one. The job fundamentally reports to Beijing authorities, who pre-select a pool of candidates. And yet the chief executive has to serve the Hong Kong people. Often, the views of two are diametrically opposed.” However, had she apologized and reversed course earlier, she might have saved face with the people of Hong Kong. But by waiting so long to apologize, she seems to have damaged her own ability to govern while gaining nothing for the Chinese government. Moreover, at the time of this writing, the controversial bill has not been canceled, and Lam is still the leader of Hong Kong.

With so little to gain and so much to lose, it is no wonder that many politicians choose not to apologize at all. Trump is a famous example of an unapologetic politician. Time and time again, Trump has refused to apologize for his wrong doings when given the opportunity. Most recently, he refused to apologize yet again for calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five who were wrongly convicted of raping a jogger in Central Park in the 1980’s. But of course, Trump is hardly the only politician who does not apologize for transgressions. The common thread throughout these stories, however, is that politicians who refrain from apologizing often suffer no consequences for doing so. If the evidence is to be believed, apologizing might just be the wrong move in general.

The paradox is that, while they might not often give the public or the politician the closure each needs, apologies are a necessary part of political life. Given this reality, why do we keep demanding that politicians apologize when there is very little chance that doing so will achieve the purpose for which the apology is intended?

The answer is perhaps somewhat trite: we need apologies from politicians because we need emotional closure. An apology is fundamentally a show of vulnerability and an acceptance of shame, and the purpose of an apology is in some sense to bargain with the party who has been wronged. It is in the apologizer’s interest to show just enough vulnerability such that the wronged party can exact the amount of retribution needed for them to move on. When a politician makes an apology, therefore, they are offering a bargaining chip to the public: if I show contrition and accept shaming, will you, the people, let me move on from this situation without requiring me to give up further political capital afterward? This is the bargain that politicians make when they offer an apology to the masses. 

When a politician refuses to apologize, however, two things are achieved. On the one hand, the politician demonstrates that they do not care about the segment of the population to whom the apology is owed. This can be very damaging to a politician if the segment is large enough to threaten their legitimacy as a ruler. On the other hand, the politician successfully avoids showing any vulnerability or weakness that could later be exploited by political opponents. That allows the politician to maintain a facade of strength, which often plays out well in polls of their supporters. If maintaining their facade of strength is all that is needed to maintain their power base, and maintaining their power base is all that they care about, then of course, a politician will avoid apologizing. This is, for instance, the calculation that President Trump makes whenever he turns down an opportunity to apologize.

The main problem with these politicians is that they are often highly divisive for a nation. After all, when the politician will not apologize, the wronged party will naturally turn on the segment of the population that continues to support said politician. The politician’s supporters are met with vitriol and shaming that would otherwise have been delivered to the politician had they apologized. This shaming will often cause the supporters to react defensively and cling ever more to the politician. In this way, a politician who refuses to apologize can, counterintuitively, grow the strength of their powerbase. Unfortunately, the cost of doing so is the unity of the nation. When support for a politician becomes a defining aspect of their supporter’s identities, as will often happen when shaming forces supporter into a defensive position, a gulf between the wronged and supporters opens up that is hard to bridge. As the politician continues to refuse to show vulnerability through contrition, their power base grows, and the gulf between the supporters and the wronged widens. It is a vicious cycle. Insofar as a nation is comprised of citizens who share a common national identity, this division can be present an existential risk to the nation as a whole.

There is, however, a breed of politician who will apologize even when doing so could negatively affect their base of support. These tend to be politicians who wish to expand their base of support across the entire population, even if doing so means that they must initially sacrifice some support among their base. Indeed, the incentives for taking this approach are arguably greater, since successfully doing so would give a politician a greater mandate than simply focusing on strengthening their power base. The politicians who apologize for the sake of expanding their mandate are generally exhibiting a version of what many would call ‘leadership.’

Leadership here is not just understood as the ability of a politician to win victories for their base of support. While that is a form of leadership, there are different incentives for politicians to pursue it because it necessarily limits the possible mandate of the politician to a smaller segment of the population. After all, actively dividing the public up by refusing to offer apologies means that there will be a limited number of people in the population who will support the divisive politician. Of course, dividing the population can sure up their base of support and protect them from attacks. But the divisive politician will only ever manage to derive power from their narrower slice of support and miss out on the larger pie. In contrast, the form of the leadership that seeks to expand the base across many groups within the population will leave open the possibility of growing their mandate to encompass the entire population. By apologizing in just the right way at just the right time, the leader can use these apologies to win support from new groups of people and unite the nation in the process. But therein lies the rub: apologies are hard to do well, and often do enough damage to a politician’s image that they lose the overall mandate which they were trying to expand or protect.

The paradox of public apologies, then, is this: better leaders attempt them, but more successful politicians avoid them. That in part explains why one might find Justin Trudeau, bumbling as he is, more simpatico than Donald Trump. At least Trudeau has tried to expand his mandate and unite his people. Trump, however, seems to delight in sowing discord and division, preferring the power of a strong base over the good of a united country.

At the end of the day, apologies will remain a part of public life, and they will continue to be ineffective and unrewarding for all involved. But as a nation, it is important to continue to demand them from politicians. After all, apologies are an integral part of maintaining the bonds between peoples. When apologies are withheld, these bonds loosen. Should they loosen too far, people might find themselves in a situation where these fateful words must be repeated: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation...” 

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