Ben Affleck apologized this week after video resurfaced of a 2003 appearance on Total Request Live where he groped the host’s breast. He did so in a one sentence tweet that was brisk, stark and staggeringly insincere. It didn’t seem to go down well on Twitter, particularly after a long week of particularly embarrassing attempts at public penitence. In a time where Harvey Weinstein tries to simultaneously apologize for sexual assault while denying the claims as well as demonstrating his progressive credentials, we find ourselves watching the apology bar be lowered, yet somehow remain impossible for most to jump.
Every time a celebrity apologizes for something, be it big or small, I find myself pre-emptively cringing for the public display of false atonement that has quickly become the go-to mode for such occasions. When it looks like an apology and makes the noises of apology but isn’t actually a sincere display of regret or penance, we have what Linda Holmes of NPR calls the onomatopology. The chances are you’ve heard this routine a thousand times: The constant hedging of bets, the casual victim blaming, the digs at ‘PC culture’ and, of course, the dreaded line of ‘I’m sorry if you were offended’. Nearly every celebrity apology in relation to racial slurs will feature a variation of ‘I don’t have a racist bone in my body’ or ‘I have a black/Asian/non-white friend’. These are not tenets of fake humility exclusive to the world of celebrity - everyone’s encountered at least one jerk clearly in the wrong who thinks saying less than the bare minimum in response will get them off the hook - but as a tool of a culture driven by publicists, money and a long history of such mistakes, they’ve become as commonplace as the phrase ‘no comment’.
Of course, now things are different in the social media age. That same tool that allows the famous and adored to spread their message wider and connect with their fans more closely than ever has also become an inevitable curse of frayed tempers and the inability to think twice before tweeting. We’ve all sent a tweet or Facebook post we probably shouldn’t have, and hopefully we have friends or family to hold us accountable for that. Now imagine millions of people braying for penance, whether it’s needed or not. An apology should ideally be sent out as quickly as possible on those platforms in case the toxicity increases tenfold. Sometimes it can be something as benign as a joke gone wrong or a casually dismissive response to a rude fan, or it can verge quickly into something more offensive. Celebrities can also be held accountable for sins of the past, be they major offences or a dug-up mistake the rest of us had long forgotten about.
It’s important to ask what it is we seek from a celebrity apology. The words themselves certainly can’t be enough - just look at Ben Affleck’s rather brisk one sentence apology didn’t elicit much sympathy for him - but they’re definitely needed to quell the initial fires of fury. Celebrities aren’t inherently more interesting than regular people, but the way we talk about them can be, and it reveals much about what we expect from human decorum when, say, Jason Momoa making rape jokes from several years back resurfaces post-Weinstein story and he has to apologise. Often, that kind of apology is a public salve for deeper wounds we cannot possibly mend in a short-term manner. With Momoa, there was a sense that such a prominent figure, one who is very popular with women and stands as a rare example of Polynesian representation in Hollywood, can and should do better on issues of rape culture, so an understanding that change needed to happen was sought. In many ways, as baffling as it was to me that the clip of him making the rape joke became new this week after years of knowing about it, there was something hopeful about the force behind it: There was a sense that people knew Momoa could be better and they demanded it.
That demand portion can be smothering in social media terms. The chances are, if you’re someone who messes up, celebrity or otherwise, the constructive or heartfelt call-outs you get will easily be drowned out by the people telling you to jump off a bridge. Even if you were clearly in the wrong, it’s tough to choke back the instinct to attack in those circumstances. That situation can be a double-edged sword: On the one hand, it dearly sucks to be bombarded with hostilities when you screw up, yet it’s also unfair to demand politeness from marginalised people when you’re the one who made the mistake. Speaking as a white cis woman, it’s wholly aggravating to be bombarded with sexism on a daily basis, then see some dude make a shitty misogynistic comment before demanding you be a bit nicer to him when calling him out because otherwise you’re as bad as he is.
There are some people I just don’t expect sincerity from when it comes to their celebrity apologies. The comedy world is a veritable minefield for this kind of problem, as became infamous during the Daniel Tosh rape joke fallout, where even progressive minded comedians like Patton Oswalt started talking about heckling as a censorship issue while women like Lindy West suffered the fallout for calling out the mess. Weeks before Joan Rivers died, she made some awful comments about Palestine that weren’t in any way jokes, but I never expected her, the comedian who lived every day like she was at a roast, to be penitent or really care about the ramifications of what she said. This attitude of ‘Never apologize’ that permeates much of the bro-infested world of comedy can have its power, but it also frequently feels like a convenient shield of public response, particularly if you’re just not very funny.
And then there are the truly repugnant celebrity apologies, such as the stream of bullshit that’s being projected from Harvey Weinstein. These have less to do with apology than trying to save the shreds of your crumbling public image. You can spot one of these a mile away because the focus of the apology will be the person who’s supposed to be making it, a pathetic display of narcissism that’s more concerned with reassuring the world that they’re the real victim. Even by Weinstein standards, his apologies on the sexual assault reports have been astounding in their sleaze. These are apologies that prey on humanity’s inclination for community and forgiveness, but they assume that once an apology is given, regardless of its sincerity, it will instantly be accepted. Once again, the onus is on the marginalised and victimised to take the moral high-ground, a position that’s often as shoddy as the apologies being made.
Nowadays, we’re far more impatient and that can have its benefits. We’re exhausted with ceaseless misogyny so you bet we’re going to demand better from a society steeped in rape culture; the President’s a massive racist so there’s no way we’re going to let that nonsense slide, even if some insist it’s ‘just’ a slip of the tongue; bad people have gotten away with bad behaviour for too long and we’re not going to take it anymore. All of this can be done with the appropriate sense of proportion and approach, but the desire for people to be better is one we should nurture during these bleak times.