The slew of public apologies over the past week or so from Joe Wilson, Serena Williams, and Kanye West along with the apologies during the past year from Eliot Spitzer and Mark Sanford - each offered with different degrees of sincerity and histrionics - have turned us into apology voyeurs.
As with any type of voyeurism these public apologies say much more about us, the public who demand and watch them, than they do about those seeking forgiveness. As we watch these apologies whether offered as tearful ramblings, pro forma admissions, or awkward justifications we inevitably feel with 24-hour-a-day heated media help that these apologies are cheap and facile. I have come to think of them as contemporary secular versions of cheap grace and scapegoat spectacle: Cheap grace for the celebrity apologizing and scapegoat spectacle for us the public.
These celebrity apologies are eroding an already deteriorating public culture as they are turning one of the most important human virtues - the ability to seek and grant forgiveness - into public relations events. In the coming days beginning with Rosh Hashanah (The Jewish New Year) and culminating in Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) people around the world will be participating in an ancient Jewish practice of seeking forgiveness from each other for things done wrong both intentionally and unintentionally. This process is worth reflecting on in this age of PR-scripted forgiveness rituals.
According to the 12th century philosopher-sage Maimonides, genuine forgiveness is a product of an introspective process requiring the following four steps (the four R's): Recognition of what we did wrong and why we did it, Regret for what we did and resolve to not do it again, Repair of any damage done which includes apologizing directly to the person we hurt and only at the end of this process, Reconciliation.
Seeking forgiveness and offering sincere apologies take time and are primarily acts between the person who was wrong and the person who was wronged. Something is off in our public culture. Celebrities have confused harming their own public image with harming the public and we the public have confused the responsibility celebrities have to make amends to the people they actually hurt - a responsibility no different than ours - with their role as entertainers. Not surprisingly these apologies feel so superficial and tawdry because they are less about forgiveness and more about damage control, less a product of introspection and more about remaining on the public stage.
Kanye West - a master of the public image - did not need to apologize to his fans. He did not hurt his fans. He hurt Taylor Swift and embarrassed himself with his lack of impulse control and his rudeness. The public woke up the morning after and those who even thought about it may have felt embarrassed for him (or embarrassed they were entertained by his boorish behavior) but no one watching TV was personally hurt by Kanye West. However, Taylor Swift woke up in the morning and the first thing she felt was hurt and it was to her personally with intention and remorse (rather than on his blog or the Jay Leno show) that Kanye needed to apologize and he needed to do so after having acquired some insight into why he acted so inappropriately. And it was Taylor Swift who needed to forgive Kanye, not the public. We have it exactly backwards in this country. Celebrities apologize to people they did not hurt - "their public" - and rarely if ever apologize in any reflective, direct, and private way to the people they actually did hurt.
Public apologies given within hours of the offense in the glare of camera lights actually cast a shadow on the apology (however well intentioned and sincere) and simply provide the offending party with precisely what they value most and are most afraid they have squandered: public attention. Anyone in the public eye knows it is far easier to be remorseful and shed tears before the impersonal camera than it is to make the same apology and shed the same tears in front of the person we actually hurt.
Such apologies have less to do with forgiveness and more with our desire to see someone "high" brought down, so no wonder we demand multiple apologies offered multiple times. Spirituality 101 suggests that this apology voyeurism masks our own unsatisfied need for forgiveness and unconscious yearning to be held accountable. Rather than engage in the messy and often painful process of forgiveness it is so much easier for those of us who need to be humbling ourselves and asking forgiveness from someone in our lives to feel the "thrilling" discomfort of our celebrities' humiliation and it so much simpler for those of us who have someone in our lives to whom we need to be more open-hearted and forgiving to feel the "graciousness" of a celebrities' immediate granting of forgiveness.
Perhaps we need some new rules. No celebrity or public figure ought to be permitted to apologize to the public for at least one week so as to have time to think about what caused the misbehavior, to feel remorse, to decide how to repair the damage, and to apologize privately to the person they hurt. Only after this process should a celebrity possibly offer a public apology for what they actually did to the public: betray their craft, art, and profession and disappoint their fans and supporters who wisely or not expect that with the privilege and rewards of fame comes trust and responsibility.
The irony in all this is that if celebrities took this process of seeking forgiveness seriously they would actually help positively influence the public culture they so want to shape and might even become a bit worthier of the celebrity status with which they have been gifted