Situated at the intersection of celebrity and technology lies one high-profile rite of passage — the public apology. Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and traditional media have all become spaces for politicians, influencers, actors and musicians to ask their constituents and fans for forgiveness.

The public apology has become a prerequisite for seemingly every Democrat running for president in 2020, and for every public figure that appeared in a yearbook in the 1980s. Joe Biden has apologized for his treatment of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearing, Elizabeth Warren apologized to the Cherokee nation for taking a DNA test and Kamala Harris expressed regret about her history as a prosecutor in California.

Each of these presidential hopefuls are quick to admit regrets and shame in their quest to challenge President Trump, a man who has still never apologized for his insensitive remarks after the Charlottesville riots and who argued that “locker room talk” includes discussions of sexual assault.

An admission of guilt is a slippery slope for politicians; first they apologize, then they are expected to resign, or be impeached. Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia remains resistant to call for his resignation after a racist yearbook photo from 1984 re-surfaced last weekend. Notably, these calls are coming from his political enemies and his political allies. Instead of prioritizing the communities he has betrayed, Northam prioritized his own power.

If this year’s debacle is any indication, a public apology will also be necessary for any future Oscars hosts. I predict that in 2030, the Academy will institute a new category for “Best Apology in an Instagram Live,” and a Pulitzer Prize will be awarded for the Best Notes App Apology featured in a Screenshot.

Following the #MeToo movement, one would think we would be better at apologies. Although we are exposed to more apologies than ever before, the definition of an apology has grown to include self-preservation, rationalization, gas lighting and other misinterpretations of the word.

In 2017, Kevin Spacey “apologized” about accusations leveled against him and added, “I choose now to live as a gay man,” irresponsibly conflating his homosexuality with his sexual predation. Two years later, he was begging to return to public life in a bizarre YouTube video titled Let Me Be Frank, (presumably a reference to his “House of Cards” character) in which he patronizingly coos, “You wouldn’t rush to judgment without facts, would you? Did you?”

Also in 2017, Louis C.K. expressed regret and shame, and assured the world he would be taking time to listen. In 2019, he was already openly joking “I like to jerk off, and I don’t like to be alone,” while complaining about the Parkland students’ activism after living through a tragedy.  

Many celebrity apologies are first shared on Twitter. The site is the rare social media platform that can puncture celebrities’ teams and expose the rich and famous to negative feedback. Perhaps this is why so many public figures no longer use the site and admonish the “cancel culture” it perpetuates.

“Cancel culture” refers to the act of “canceling,” or ending a celebrity’s career through social media activism that usually takes place after a controversy. After the premiere of the documentary, “Surviving R. Kelly,” #MuteRKelly began trending on Twitter in an effort to draw attention to his crimes and prevent people from playing his music.

It is easy for celebrities to categorize any valid criticism as online outrage perpetuated by a single group of people. This tactic was most recently employed by Kevin Hart, who faced opposition after being announced as the host for this year’s Oscars. Members of the LGBTQ community and their allies reminded the public of the comedian’s homophobic tweets. Hart emphasized he had apologized in the past and called all those who opposed him “trolls.”

It is difficult to define what a public apology should be, but the best example is Dan Harmon’s apology to his former employee and “Community” writer, Megan Ganz. Ganz called out Harmon on Twitter, which prompted Harmon to speak openly and honestly about his experience on his podcast, “Harmontown.”

None of our heroes, political or cultural, should be infallible. Nor should we expect them to be. We should, however, expect them to be humble, respectful and willing to learn. And just like most children, we should expect them to say “I’m sorry” when they’ve made a mistake.

 

millerhh@miamioh.edu

 

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