The Rhetoric of Public Apologies and the Critical Criterion of Risk

–Richard E. Vatz

”I wouldn’t have it in me to execute him if he were to repent…if the nation heard him apologize for what he did…for executing such acts of vicious evil…”
–David Gelernter on his qualified support for executing the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, who tried to kill him and successfully murdered several innocent others over 2 decades

This Red Marylander has written and talked on television and radio about Mayor Sheila Dixon’s lack of contrition regarding her serial unethical behavior as Baltimore office-holder as well as the nature of public apology – when it may be sincere and when it is likely insincere.

It is difficult to understand why some in the public eye have so yearned for the apology that never came forth from Dixon. They would say that maybe since she didn’t apologize after she was caught, she’ll apologize before her trial; since she didn’t apologize before her trial, maybe she’ll apologize after her trial; and since she didn’t apologize after her trial, maybe she’ll apologize at her sentencing.

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Apologies matter if and only if they are accompanied by a consequence brought about by the apology itself. If a politician apologizes before he or she is caught or if any individual apologizes before what he/she has done is discovered, there may be ramifications that are not anticipated. The sincere apology involves some risk.

Why should David Gelernter, whom I admire tremendously, have his outrage assuaged by an apology that is cheap to give and easy to perform at no cost to the Unabomber murderer? Toughen up, Dr. Gelernter; don’t be so easily fooled.

People want apologies by murderers at sentencing. Why? Who knows if there is any sincerity, and who cares what such a lowlife actually believes regardless?

The outrage of people associated with the miscreant is analogous. When does it occur? Only after conviction? Only after the individual in question has lost power? For such a condemnation to mean anything, it must occur while the culprit is in a position to loose punishment or some sort of revenge on the critic.

In the case of Mayor Dixon, as in the case of the racist attacks on Michael Steele, there was virtually no outcry until years had gone by, and in the latter case, not even then for all but a few fellow Democrats.

True courage is a rare phenomenon. In the case of speaking out against the unethical act or acts of politically kindred souls, it is courageous only if it occurs at a time when there is some risk.

For the evildoer himself or herself, an apology can be assumed to be sincere only if it entails risk.

Otherwise, spare us.

Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University

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