The Rise Of No-fault Apologies

Essay: The Heartfelt And Straightforward Admission Of Culpability Seems To Be A Thing Of The Past. Sorry About That.

April 22, 1997|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

You step on someone's foot. I'm sorry. Hear that a friend's pet has died. I'm so sorry. Spill a drink at a party. Sorry! Spit on a man in front of millions, then suggest it's his fault, because his son's death has made him bitter and mean.

No comment.

Welcome to the sorry state of the apology, when regrets seem to come most readily when they matter the least.

The apology has become the peso of modern rhetoric, a sentiment devalued by virtue of being offered so automatically and unfeelingly. "The apology too prompt," John Milton called it in "Paradise Lost."

Yet when circumstances would seem to demand a heartfelt and sincere admission of error, we clam up, suddenly uncomfortable with subject-verb-object construction: I regret that I did this to you.

Sorry, no can do. In this country, we long ago took the me out of mea culpa. We prefer that famed political motto of the Reagan administration: Mistakes were made. Your high school English teacher be damned, the Great Communicator proved once and for all that passive voice has its uses.

St. Francis of Assisi wrote: Where there is injury, let me grant pardon. John Wayne spoke (in "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon"): Never apologize, never explain. No contest here. We're saddling up with the Duke and the Gipper.

Apologies come to mind because umpire John Hirschbeck is in town today. It will be his first appearance at Camden Yards since last summer's contretemps with Oriole Roberto Alomar and the liquid shot seen 'round the world. The spitting "incident."

Must we rehash it here? Sorry, we must. Hirschbeck called a strike in an important game against the Toronto Blue Jays. Alomar said it was a ball. Angry words were spoken, heard by only a few. Spit went flying, seen by millions. Then Alomar broke half of John Wayne's rule -- he tried to explain: It was, he said, Hirschbeck's fault. Over the past six months, in public statements, the two men have indicated they wish to put this ugly event behind them. Still, there was some effort to stage a national "awwwwwwwwwww" moment today -- closure for us, if not for them -- but it doesn't look likely.

If the Alomar-Hirschbeck rapprochement were to be achieved, it would only be the latest in a growing apology fad. The Baptists apologize to the descendants of American slaves. Hungary's bishops apologize for the "weaknesses" of church members that allowed Jews to be deported and slaughtered during the Holocaust. Howard Stern apologizes, en espanol, for offending Selena's fans. Mark Applewhite apologizes for his father, Marshall, who led 38 of his followers in the mass suicide of the "Heaven's Gate" cult.

Meanwhile, President Clinton has become our Apologist-in-Chief, offering official regrets for everything from radiation testing to the Tuskegee experiment. Everything, it would seem, except Whitewater and welfare reform.


Notice that none of these folks is apologizing for things they actually did. Not that it necessarily matters to the recipients, who can be touchingly grateful for these symbolic acknowledgments. Here's Herman Shaw, a 94-year-old survivor of the Tuskegee experiment, on the as-yet-unscheduled presidential apology: "Personally, I would thank him very kindly for his courage."

Maybe Bill Clinton should be asked to step in and offer apologies to Alomar and Hirschbeck -- if only a consensus could be reached on who should apologize to whom. In Clinton's absence, Alomar has done the best he can, traveling the twisted route of the modern apologist, in which one attempts to say "I'm sorry" without saying "I erred." In this, he has proved more human than divine.

Maybe it's that language problem -- Alomar's first language is Spanish -- which was blamed for his less-than-gracious explanations of why he spat: Hirschbeck had become a bad umpire because one son had died and his other son was ill with the same disease, ALD. Also, he insulted Alomar's mother. Or his family.

That was the first phase of what turned out to be a three-act play.

Act II, we-a culpa. As spring training began, Alomar appeared to accept that spitting trumps ugly words on the bridge table of public opinion. So he tried this tack: "I have no bad feelings toward John, and about last year, it was a situation where tempers got out of control in a very important game. I know we both regret what happened." Mistakes were made. Errores eran hechos.

Act III, the best defense is a good offense. Owner Peter Angelos and Alomar's agent demand an apology -- from Hirschbeck. He declines. He does not try to have it both ways, expressing regret while exempting himself from personal responsibility.

End of play. Don't expect a big clinch at home plate today.

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