How can a statement that begins “I apologize” not be an apology? Many have referred to Donald Trump’s initial statement following the October 5 revelation of a taped conversation featuring lewd and objectifying language about women as a “nonapology.” Having received plenty of similar nonapologies from rebellious teenagers, I’d like to take a moment to explain.
The statement at hand is from Trump’s press release of October 7: “I apologize if anyone was offended.” The syntax is familiar to many who have been on the receiving end of such supposed apologies — for example:
From the illicit party-thrower: I apologize if your living room wasn’t put back the way you like it.
From the unfaithful spouse: I apologize if you felt betrayed.
From the customer-service representative who keeps you on hold for 20 minutes and then cuts you off: I apologize if you were upset.
From the date rapist: I apologize if you were traumatized.
The first problem with these statements, as many have pointed out in the case of Trump, is that they shift the responsibility from the doer to the receiver of the offensive action. The passive voice employed in “was offended,” “was traumatized,” “wasn’t put back,” and so on fails to acknowledge personal responsibility in the way that “I offended,” “I traumatized,” “I failed to put back” would. Condescension often creeps in with the implication that whoever is seeking the apology possesses unreasonably delicate feelings that a different, more robust individual would be able to put aside. We call this blaming the victim not because the victim caused the action to occur, but because the victim’s peculiar sensibilities are prompting the need for an apology.
There’s a second problem with the syntax of these statements that I think warrants greater attention, but before we get to it, I want (again) to put straight the function of a clause beginning with if. Defenders of the subjunctive often style these clauses contrary-to-fact, as in Johnny Cash’s If I were a carpenter, and you were a lady, would you marry me anyway? Would you have my baby? But not all if clauses are contrary to fact. Trump’s nonapologetic if anyone was offended actually acknowledges that some people may feel offended, just as If we’re with Grandma for the weekend, we’ll get pancakes acknowledges that we may spend the weekend with Grandma. Otherwise, in Trump’s case, we’d have “I would apologize if anyone were offended,” which is about as much of a nonapology as can be mustered.
No, the second problem isn’t that the clause is contrary to fact, but that it is hypothetical; it leaves enormous room for the action to have been nonoffensive. We can see this most clearly if we reverse the syntax, i.e., “If anyone was offended, I apologize.” Strictly speaking, that sentence says the same thing as the statement Trump put out. But it also implies the reverse: If you were not offended, I don’t apologize.
We actually got into a discussion of this at the breakfast table this morning. (Gives you some idea of how exciting mornings are in my household!) My husband pointed out the fallacy of my reasoning with a popular logician’s example: If you are over 12 feet tall, you are over six feet tall. Reverse that statement, and you get something ridiculous: You are not over 12 feet tall, therefore you are not over six feet tall. Not being very good at logic, I pointed out that there should surely be a difference when the second part of the sentence involves someone else’s agency. Let’s say I have a distinct prejudice against extraordinarily tall people and I say, If you are over 12 feet tall, I hate you. Surely, then, if you are not over 12 feet tall, I do not hate you.
But, my logical husband pointed out, I might have other reasons to hate you. Maybe you have terrible breath. Maybe you take candy from babies. That’s why the argument contains a logical fallacy: Just because A implies B does not mean that not-A implies not-B. And yet, in the universe of height, it does. If only A implies B, then whatever is not-A cannot imply B. If my hatred is reserved only for people of unbelievable altitude, I cannot hate those who do not achieve that altitude.
Breakfast ended happily, and I returned to Trump’s statement. Although the Donald came out later with something more closely approximating a true apology, this initial formulation had the ring of “If only A, then B.” That is, the only reason to apologize for initiating lascivious, vulgar, misogynist conversation about females is the possibility that people listening to a tape of that conversation would find it offensive. The conversation itself is not a reason to apologize. The views it implies about women are not a reason to apologize. The actions he reports having taken are not actions to apologize for, unless the reports of said actions are offensive.
This truth, I think, is the reason all such nonapologies are destined to infuriate those who receive them. The illicit party-thrower sees nothing wrong in his acting illicitly; the date rapist sees nothing wrong in his having raped. What determines moral consequences is solely the existence of an offended party. The corollary, needless to say, is that the offender silently vows, not to abstain, but to avoid getting caught or confronted. We want the promise — for instance, Trump’s later pledge “to be a better man tomorrow” — to be backed up with an acknowledgment that he regrets the act itself; that rather than prompting a wish that people wouldn’t be upset about the words or action, the demand for apology has prompted a true search of the soul.
But then, you’d need a soul to search.Return to Top