What makes for an acceptable public apology?

Joe Wilson, Serena Williams, and Kanye West — from the trifecta of politics, sports, and entertainment — have all suffered lately for their public outbursts, then attempted to soothe over the ire they kicked up by apologizing for what they’d done. These expressions of regret ran the gamut from genuine to lukewarm.

“I’m just ashamed that [I] caused someone else’s hurt,” West told Jay Leno. “I don’t try to justify it because I was just in the wrong.”

Williams’ contrition sounded like apologia. “I’m a very prideful person and I’m a very intense person and a very emotional person,” she said, her sister Venus standing beside her.

Wilson’s apology, however genuinely scripted, still seemed, well, scripted. “While I disagree with the President’s statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the President for this lack of civility.”

Meanwhile, on Thursday night’s “Late Show,” David Letterman unwound the story of his having been extorted for being sexually involved with a number of the women on the staff of his show. Using few notes, Letterman the monologist came nowhere near apologizing for his part, instead parceling hamfisted jokes to a clap-happy audience that didn’t quite know what to do with the news he had to give them. Surreal task finished, he closed the subject.

In the rite of “The Reconciliation of a Penitent” in the Book of Common Prayer, clergy are instructed to look for the confession of all “serious sins troubling the conscience” and “evidence of due contrition.” But they only look for these things after someone has come to them seeking reconciliation and restoration. I’m not sure about you, but my office is not overrun with penitents.

What do you think? To what extent, if any, has the now-ubiquitous televised apology wrung the power out of real personal contrition? If a known person can do it half-heartedly according to a known format and then not have to pay the price, why can’t I do the same thing? Or, worse, if a celebrity won’t, why should I have to?

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