April 16, 2007

"Sorry" Spectacles

Listening to the latest in high-profile public apologies -- from Alberto Gonzales, Paul Wolfowitz, and Don Imus -- took me back to an incident that happened in my undergraduate days at Columbia about a million years ago. A bunch of my friends and I used to spend long afternoons and evenings at the movie theaters along West 42d Street, where for less than a buck you could see a double or triple feature of gangster movies, war movies or westerns. That was well before the area was sanitized and Disneyfied, and the theaters were -- well, "seedy" hardly begins to say it. The seats and carpeting were shabby and permanently saturated with a mixture of fluids, processed and unprocessed. The balconies were sharply raked, the rows so close together as to make even the economy section of a United Airlines flight seem positively spacious. And the clientele was a mix of movie buffs, lonely guys, and down-and-outers who considered 99 cents a stone bargain for a warm place to sleep off a bender. So it was that a friend and I found ourselves in the balcony of a largely empty theater one rainy weekday evening watching an Anthony Mann western when we heard a middle-class male voice behind us saying in a loud, indignant tone: "Sorry? You piss on my date and you're SORRY?"

I didn't actually see the malefactor, and it occurs to me only now (a little sadly) that the remark might have been simply a prank. But suppose we take it at face value. At the risk of belaboring the obvious (but that's what pragmatics is all about, isn't it?), let me ask what makes that incident so risibly absurd.

For starters, recall the notion of a performative utterance, which was introduced by J. L. Austin in his 1955 William James lectures (later published as How to Do Things With Words). Unlike what Austin called "constative" utterances -- statements and the like -- performative utterances do, rather than merely report. "I now pronounce you husband and wife"; "I hereby dub you Sir Nigel"; "I bet you ten dollars it will rain tomorrow" -- when utterances like those are produced in the appropriate circumstances, they don't simply describe the world, but change it, creating contracts, bestowing names, and so forth. (Somewhat more controversially, Austin also claimed that performative utterances don't have truth-values, but leave that be for now.)

But while the effects of acts of betting, christening, marrying, pronouncing a verdict and such are obvious, Austin also gave some examples that are a little more puzzling -- or always have been to me, anyway. "I apologize," for example. Austin described that as a performative utterance, as opposed to a constative utterance like "I repent." That certainly feels right, and the linguistic facts support it: used in this way, apologize occurs in the simple present tense, like other performative verbs, and can be prefaced by the adverb hereby, for example.

But what exactly does an apology do? Austin didn't say, nor do most other writers who talk about the subject. You can find no end of lists of conditions that an utterance has to satisfy to count as a true apology: the speaker has to regret the act and its consequences, feel sorry about it, accept responsibility for it, vow not to repeat it, and so on. But few of them explain how an apology actually makes the world different, unlike mere expressions of regret, remorse or penitence.

The most enlightening discussion of this that I know of comes (not surprisingly) from Erving Goffman, in his books Interaction Ritual and particularly Relations in Public. (Goffman's account has since been built on by others, but his story will do for here). Apologies, Goffman said, are remediation rituals that "represent a splitting of the self into a blameworthy part and a part that stands back and sympathizes with them, and by implication, is worthy of being brought back into the fold." As a ritual, Goffman insisted, the apology is independent of the substantive penalties that may be attached to an offense:

After an offense has occurred, the job of the offender is to show. . . that whatever happened before, he now has a right relationship -- a pious attitude -- to the rule in question, and this is a matter of indicating a relationship, not compensating a loss.

Seen in that way, an apology can fail when the offender is insincere in splitting himself, not really accepting that the acts of his offending self merit censure -- that his acts were shameful, I'd put it, though "shame" is a notion that Goffman didn't seem to have much use for. Or it can fail when it's offered chiefly in the hope it will count as substantive remediation that compensates for the offense. In practice, the two generally go together -- when people apologize insincerely, it's almost always in the hope of mitigating the penalties for their offense. In the case of the movie micturator, for example, it's absurd to suppose that somebody who was capable of the act in the first place could undergo a sudden change of heart and revile the self who had committed it a moment before, and equally absurd to imagine that he could seriously believe that an apology would spare him the consequences of his act.

The apologies from Gonzales, Wolfowitz, and Imus aren't quite in a class with that one (though Imus falls short only in virtue of being able to claim that his pissing on women was purely figurative). It's fair to assume that all three accept responsibility for their actions, that they regret and feel rueful about what they did, and that they're sincerely resolved to avoid doing anything of the sort in the future. But it's also fair to assume that none of them really feels any deep sense of shame over his action or is suffering from a remorse of conscience that would lead him to welcome, in the persona of his new, pious self, the full application to his old, offending self of the penalties that are condign to what he did. Nobody doubts that each offered his apology in the hope it would help him to keep his job, or failing that, at least make it easier to get the next one.

Still, I don't mean to suggest that these were actually "nonapologies" (a term that first entered the language in 1971 but didn't really become common until the late 90's, when public contrition became a popular spectacle). Gonzales' "mistakes were made" probably falls into that category, but Wolfowitz and Imus made most of the requisite noises. And I don't feel indignant at the thought that none of them actually feels that he shamed himself by his actions. If their remarks failed as sincere apologies, they still satisfied a social purpose. In the contemporary theater of contrition, the point of ritualistic public apologies isn't to demonstrate that an offender is really, truly sorry, but only that public opinion has the power to exact the expression of self-abnegation (or in Goffman's terms, self-splitting) that's inherent in a formal apology. As I put this in a "Fresh Air" piece a couple of months ago:

Does anybody really care whether Pat Robertson was genuinely remorseful about suggesting that Hugo Chavez should be assassinated, or whether Charles Stimson felt a pang of conscience after attacking the lawyers representing the Guantanamo detainees? Sometimes, the more insincere and grudging a nonapology is, the better it makes the point: it doesn't matter whether you're really sorry -- if you say this kind of stuff, you're going to have to go out there and take it back.

Or for that matter, take the movie micturator (if there really was one, anyway). Of course he wasn't sincerely sorry. But I mean, what else was he going to say?

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at April 16, 2007 06:35 PM