My very wise partner has noted that “The people who are most inclined to say ‘I’m sorry’ often have nothing to apologize for. The a--holes who have so much to be sorry for, never apologize.”
Donald Trump could be the poster boy for this this latter category - its commander-in-chief, if you will. He has happily accumulated a long list of offenses, great and small, without a single apology – or hint of remorse - on record.
This all came to mind several times during the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh earlier this month - most notably during Lindsay Graham’s rant about the “hell” through which Kavanaugh had been put by Graham’s Democratic colleagues and the liberal media. At one point Graham looked at Kavanaugh and said: “You have nothing to apologize for!”
How bizarre and appalling, I thought. And then: in a way, how brilliant! This could well be the motto, the mantra, the tag line, and/or the voice mail message for American white male privilege. We have nothing to apologize for.
This declaration, on the one hand, cleverly suggests innocence and righteousness: “We have done nothing wrong!” But it might also (and, in this case, more accurately) suggest an utter lack of contrition: “Whatever happened, and whatever role we might have played, we are not remotely sorry, we don’t care, and we have no intention of taking any responsibility for its consequences.” In effect, “we don’t do apologies.”
“You have nothing to apologize for” worked very well for Kavanaugh and his defenders. It has also worked for many powerful, privileged perpetrators.
When perpetrator is called out, a response of “I have nothing to apologize for” might mean any (or a combination) of these…
(1) It never happened. (“I have never sexually assaulted anyone!” “I did not have sexual relations with that woman…” “I am not a crook.”)
(2) It might have happened, but it wasn’t me/us/him! (Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony was compelling. I do believe she was assaulted. But I do not believe that Brett Kavanaugh was the assailant.)
(3) The victim(s)/accuser(s) are not credible. She/he/they are unworthy of our respect, sympathy, attention or contrition. (She was dressed provocatively. He had a criminal record. Pot was found in his apartment. She has a horse-face. He’s a Muslim, with ties to extremists. He’s “illegal.” He’s a shop-lifter. She had been drinking. She never went to the police. She continued working with him after the “alleged incident.” He had ties to the Communist Party/Black Panther Party/Muslim Brotherhood.)
(4) The alleged offense - the sexist/racist/homophobic “joke,” the slur, the promotion that never came, the discarded voter registration forms, segregated schools and neighborhoods, use of force, land grabs, Jim Crow, slavery, colonialism – wasn’t (isn’t) that big a deal. (We all like beer! Boys will be boys. It’s locker room talk! Slavery was a long time ago. The “alleged assault” was 36 years ago! Colonialism was a mixed bag. War is ugly. We’ve made a lot of progress. We all face challenges. My immigrant grandparents faced discrimination too. You’re making something out of nothing. Snowflake!)
(5) Actually, it might have been a good thing. While we may have made some mistakes, we are in fact proud of what we’ve done. And, perhaps, you should be grateful! (You are lucky you were colonized by the British, who left you with the best institutions. The elimination of Saddam Hussein was a good thing. The US is, on balance, a force for good. Inequality spurs economic growth by providing the right incentives. Separating children from their parents makes us safer by discouraging illegal immigration. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved lives.)
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(6) How can you accuse ME? Do you know who I am? I went to Yale! I worked my butt off! I was captain of my high school basketball team. My judicial record is impeccable. I coach my daughter’s basketball team. I go to church every Sunday. I love my wife. I love this country. I have served this country selflessly! I won the election.
(7) This is an irrational, unfair, spiteful, vicious attack. You are ruining my life! You, in fact, owe me (us) an apology! I am the victim! (It’s a very scary time for young men in America. Reverse racism! The global trading system is stacked against the USA! The This is a political hit job. Fake news. Lame-stream media. White men are the real victims.* He is a good man. He’s got his whole life ahead of him! )
And thus, they have nothing to apologize for.
Underlying the claim that “I/you/we have nothing to apologize for” is, really, this: “We are entitled to do what we want and take no responsibility for the consequences. We will thus dismiss any effort to hold us accountable as illegitimate, stupid, unfair, reverse-racist, fake news, sour grapes, envy of our way of life, vicious, or extremist. We have no intention of apologizing. In fact, we don’t apologize.” This declaration is rooted in arrogance and entitlement, not innocence. It means that no one has the right to take this virtually unlimited privilege from me. That is, you have no right to “ruin my life.”
A US Congressman body-slams reporter. A US Senate candidate has a history of sexually assaulting young girls. Trump brags that he grabs the p-ssies of women without invitation. Trump fuels racist rage against five teenagers accused of a crime they didn’t commit. He describes neo-Nazis as “good people.” His administration separates immigrant children from their parents. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Henry Kissinger and others use US military power to kill innocent people by the hundreds of thousands.
They have nothing to apologize for. It didn’t happen. They didn’t do it. They have no regrets. It was a long time ago. It was actually a good idea - for the greater good. They are victims of a smear campaign. We owe them an apology.
All of this said, the apparently righteous claim that “we have nothing to apologize for” often serves as a clever diversion, shifting the conversation away from more important issues. While I would be happy to hear heart-felt apologies from Trump, McConnell, Kavanaugh, Kissinger, Charles and David Koch, Dick Cheney, and Lloyd Blankfein (I’m not holding my breath) I am much more interested in dismantling the structures of exploitation, inequality, white privilege, sexism, homophobia and capitalist plunder. Too much focus on the sins, confessions, and penance (or not) of individual perpetrators can distract us from these deeper, more important struggles.
Indeed this framing regularly contaminates and derails our discussions of race and racism in the US. The assertion that “we live in a racist country, and racism has deep and pervasive consequences” is regularly met with this reply from a white person: “*I* am not a racist. I am color-blind. And things haven’t been all that easy for me! I have nothing to apologize for.” This claim of “color-blindness” is, first off, very often not true. But, more importantly, the conversation and the work is to understand, confront, and dismantle racist structures. This is not about whether you are a “good person.”
I conclude as I started. The people who are most inclined to say ‘I’m sorry,’ often have nothing to apologize for. The a--holes who have so much to be sorry for, never apologize.
Brett Kavanaugh and 51 US senators (among many others) have much to apologize for.
*A recent poll by YouGov and The Economist finds that people who voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election believe men are discriminated against more than LGBTQ people, women and most ethnic minorities.