The Apology Thing - Scott Adams' Blog

The Apology Thing

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Apologies are fascinating things. Where did the idea of an apology come from, and what function has evolution given it?

In the case of two people who know each other, an apology is a quick way to lower emotions and get on the path to better relations. Interestingly, an insincere apology works as well as a genuine one, as long as the recipient can’t tell the difference. I don’t know what percent of apologies across the globe are fraudulent, but I’d guess it’s a big number.

A sincere apology would take this form:

1.      I made a mistake.

2.      I didn’t mean to hurt you.

3.      I won’t do it again.

Realistically, most people think they have good reasons for doing what they do, even when the outcomes are unfortunate. When you think you didn’t make a mistake, you can’t honestly say that something similar won’t happen again. The only truth in most fake apologies is that no harm was intended. And even then, the intent might have been to poke some fun, but things got out of hand. In other words, many apologies are lies that have utility for everyone involved.

An interesting variation on the personal apology is the demanded public apology. That happens when a public figure says something unusually offensive, or is taken out of context, and some portion of the public gets hopping mad. The offended person or group demands an apology! In that situation, what is the purpose of an apology?

The Limbaugh/Fluke situation is a good illustration. As far as I can tell, no one was injured by Limbaugh’s “slut” accusations because everyone understood it to be an absurd analogy, albeit an insulting one. No matter how influential you imagine Rush Limbaugh to be, it’s not likely anyone changed his or her opinion about the several billion people who engage in recreational sex. Nor can I imagine that Fluke cared enough about Limbaugh’s opinion to be psychologically wounded by it. My best guess is that privately she thought it was amusing, and it was useful to highlight the issue she cared about. I might be generalizing too much from myself, but I’d feel good all day if Rush Limbaugh insulted me by name.

Some have argued that women in general were the targets of Limbaugh’s “slut” insult, and that this was a clear case of misogyny that needed to be nipped in the bud. If that’s the case, what is the function of the demanded apology? As we can see, no one accepted the apology, and it didn’t help Limbaugh in any way.

Obviously Limbaugh hoped his apology would help him retain advertisers, and listeners. His goals are clear. But what is the benefit to the recipients of the apology? No one would expect Limbaugh’s apology to make anyone feel different. Perhaps Limbaugh’s apology is nothing more than a reminder to the world that coarse language has no place in public debate.

My hypothesis is that apologies are a way for humans to determine their status in society. A king and queen never apologize for their actions because they don’t need to. But the server at your local restaurant apologizes even when he knows the customer is in the wrong, because the server has a lower status than his boss, who in turn has a lower status than the customers. When you’re trying to determine the status of people, apologies are reliable markers.

In the Limbaugh/Fluke situation, society is asking Limbaugh to acknowledge that despite his many listeners, and despite his alleged influence on politics, his status is lower than that of the 3.5 billion women on the planet. Limbaugh’s apology clarified his status, like a submissive dog lowering his head when a more dominant dog comes near. We humans have evolved in a way that makes us want to fight when our status is threatened. Limbaugh’s “slut” comment was a full frontal assault on the status of women in society. And Limbaugh’s apology was a form of symbolic surrender, and an acceptance of his lower status. I think someday Limbaugh’s apology might be seen by historians as signaling the end of the conservative movement’s supremacy in American politics.