TIME People

Sorry Situation

Why even the worst fauxpologies still do the world good

After right-wing rocker-ranter ted Nugent gave an interview to Guns.com and discovered that people find it offensive when you refer to the President as a “subhuman mongrel,” it was time for a now common ritual: the sort-of apology. In a radio interview Feb. 21, the Motor City Madman said he was sorry–“not necessarily to the President,” mind you, but to the conservative politicians he may have embarrassed, including the GOP candidate for governor of Texas he recently campaigned with. Only after the interviewer pressed him on whether he was apologizing to Obama himself did Nugent let slip a “Yes.”

Frost/Nixon it wasn’t. But Nugent’s fauxpology was only the latest in what’s become a Cirque du Désolé of ritual remorse. Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson was sorry for remarks about homosexuality and the pre-civil-rights South. Paula Deen, for seeming nostalgia for the pre–Civil War South. Actor and short-lived MSNBC host Alec Baldwin, for comments offensive to gays, and Pablo Galavis of ABC’s Bachelor, for other comments offensive to gays. Chris Christie (sorry about the bridge!). Shia LaBeouf (sorry about the plagiarism!). Target stores (sorry about your credit cards!).

Blather, repent, repeat. Scripted apologies are landing on our doorsteps like so many desperate, overstuffed I’m bear-y sorry! teddygrams. Maybe some of these penitents are truly contrite, but it’s hard to believe they all are. And it’s natural to ask: What’s the point? Can a blatantly insincere apology be any good to anyone?

Sure it can: just not for whom you might think.

Public apologies are different from, well, real ones. A real apology, between actual private humans, needs to demonstrate true remorse and learning on the part of the offender and needs to make the injured party feel better. But in a public apology, the apologizer, and maybe even the apologizee, is beside the point. The real point is the rest of us–the larger society, asserting the norms and changing boundaries of acceptable behavior.

It’s not O.K. to insult a black President with the racially charged term “subhuman mongrel.” It’s not O.K. to demean women or suggest violence against people you don’t like. It was once broadly considered O.K. to casually denigrate gay people; now it’s not. If you do it in public, as a public figure, you’ll be expected to say that you were wrong.

Maybe you’ll even mean it. If so, great! But your personal growth is not the priority here. True contrition and change are important, but they take time, a lifetime maybe. (Last November, Baldwin said that his outbursts–for instance, calling a reporter a “toxic little queen”–were “offensive and unacceptable.” By February, he was on the cover of New York magazine ranting about being done in by the “Gay Department of Justice.”) A calculated, self-interested apology at least tells the rest of the audience someone did something wrong, while the apologizer figures that out in his or her own time, if ever.

Sure, it’s galling to receive an insincere apology. That’s O.K.–that’s where the insincere acceptance comes in. If you don’t buy someone’s “Sorry if you were offended,” you don’t have to support their campaign, watch their TV show or patronize their business. But you can move on rather than grow old waiting for a true change of heart. You cannot make someone humble. But you can make them humbled.

That last point, unfortunately, is not lost on partisans and advocates, who now collect sorries from their adversaries for lapses–real, imagined or trumped up–like battlefield trophies. But here too the disingenuous apology does a service. It’s a pressure valve: it allows a sentence short of summary firing for every hasty tweet or nutty interview, lest we cull the world of every last intemperate but interesting personality.

I realize that arguing in favor of insincerity is morally unsatisfying. It encourages cynicism and opportunistic outrage; it makes a farce of every time I’ve told my kids they needed not just to say sorry but also to mean it. Guilty, guilty, guilty: the phony apology is an imperfect solution for an imperfect world. If I’m settling for too little, if I’m defining contrition down, I apologize. Though not necessarily to you.

This appears in the March 10, 2014 issue of TIME.
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