TIME Culture

We’re Doing Bigotry Wrong

Kali Holloway is a freelance writer and independent documentary film producer.

Fake apologies ask us to pretend that prejudices are shed as easily as coats

Recently, Charlotte Lucas – co-founder of Lucas Oil, the corporate namesake of the Indianapolis Colts’ football stadium — took to her Facebook account to comment on unchecked minority rule in America. “I’m sick and tired of minorities running our country!” her post began. Perhaps sensing that the phrase “our country” leaves some room for interpretation of proprietorship, Lucas helpfully clarified to whom she believes America does not belong:

“As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think that atheists (minority), muslims (minority) n [sic] or any other minority group has [sic] the right to tell the majority of the people in the United States what they can and cannot do here. Is everyone so scared that they can’t fight back for what is right or wrong with his [sic] country?”

While she loses points for loose-cannon bigotry, you can’t accuse Lucas of being anything but plainspoken in her honesty. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine that her rant reads as anything other than she originally intended it to: an unrestrained and uncensored outpouring of her exasperation with what she sees as rampant minority overreach in national affairs. It’s odd then, that just 48 hours later, Lucas (or more plausibly, someone in her company’s public relations area) issued an apology in which she called her comments “insensitive,” saying that they “did not reflect [her] true feelings.”

A few days later, Forrest Lucas, co-owner of Lucas Oil and Charlotte’s husband, took out a full-page ad in The Indianapolis Star to again apologize for his wife’s rant. “She has issued an apology with the hope that it will be accepted as sincere,” the open letter stated. “The reality is that the message posted on Charlotte’s Facebook page does not reflect the feelings in her heart.”

And scene. That is to say, at this point, even the least imaginative among us could have scripted this procession of events, so familiar are we with the story arc. With her apology, Lucas joins a less than esteemed – but ever expanding – group of public figures who have made inflammatory and often straight-up offensive remarks, only to issue apologies within days and, not infrequently, hours.

There are a number of things about these sudden turnabouts that push and tug at the boundaries of credulousness, not the least of which is how miraculous – and while we’re at it, unbelievable – such a radical change of heart seems in such a brief period of time. It’s “sorry” as a plea for critics to get off your back; an empty gesture toward repentance to stem a rising tide of outrage and bad publicity.

But this kind of inauthentic contrition is ultimately not just useless, it does a disservice to us all. Fake apologies, particularly those extended for bigoted outbursts, ask us to pretend that prejudices are shed as easily as coats, and to believe they can be readily remedied with regretful turns of phrase. They insist that we collude in ignoring even the most loudly stated admissions of bias and, what’s more, that we overlook what they imply about the greater pervasiveness of those attitudes. They make no effort toward erasing bigotry itself, just any apparent signs of it.

Context is everything, and in the case of these sorts of apologies, we need only look at the larger culture to find it. The endless stream of false apologies from public figures mirrors our overall collective inability to admit or acknowledge our most deeply held feelings of prejudice and bias. And if the growing frequency of these insincere apologies is any indicator – and I believe they most certainly are – they are sentiments that are widely held, if rarely publicly spoken.

The front-and-center bigotry on display in the original inflammatory comments is, quite often, preferable to the racial shell game we find ourselves playing with empty public apologies. To recognize hateful language – as well as the feelings that inspire it – and call it out would be a far more effective means of dismantling racism and discrimination than the alternative of merely pretending to look the other way. You cannot change what you cannot name, as the old saying goes. It would also simply let us know where we all stand and force us to own our ugliest opinions. Ted Nugent may be an unrepentant racist and sexist, but he always keeps his hands where I can see them, so to speak.

Don’t get me wrong — saying awful things deserves reprisal, from boycotts of your brand to the loss, even temporarily, of your cable television show. But in a society where racism, sexism and bigotry impact nearly every measure of American life, honesty about prejudice and discrimination serves as a sort of useful tool for moving the conversation around issues such as race and gender forward. In short, the message is “say what you mean.” In the end, I’ll respect you more for it.

Kali Holloway is a freelance writer and independent documentary film producer. She lives in Brooklyn.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME public apologies

It’s Time for Celebrities To Apologize—For All Their Apologizing

Henry Rollins
Henry Rollins Ben Horton—WireImage

Can we please stop embarrassing ourselves by pretending these apologies mean anything and admit they are simply a bloodless way to satisfy our bloodlust?

I am disgusted with Henry Rollins. How could he be so insensitive? What he said about Robin Williams was extraordinarily offensive and hurtful. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in free speech, but the things he said were way over the line. He definitely owed everyone an apology.

Okay. Thanks for indulging me. I just wanted to see what it felt like to actually write those things: fairly shallow and ridiculous, as I expected. But it seems like if you want attention in 2014, all you need to do is demand an apology from someone, for something.

The predictable cycle of outrage and apology is Western Civilization’s newest craze. Since Robin Williams’ suicide, Todd Bridges has apologized for calling it “a very selfish act”; Shepard Smith has apologized for having the nerve to question whether it made Williams a coward; Rollins apologized for his opinions on suicide in general; Gene Simmons has gone back and apologized for things he said about depression and suicide in an interview that had nothing to do with Robin Williams whatsoever.

All four of these men made the critical error of giving opinions on suicide that didn’t fit a polite narrative. Which in 2014 means each of them must bow their heads and apologize—or suffer the witch-hunt consequences of having an unpopular opinion. Questioning or criticizing someone’s decision to commit suicide is not insensitive or unfeeling. It’s a part of the open and honest and difficult conversation we claim to want.

We cannot continue to delude ourselves into thinking we value such conversations when what we really value is publicly flogging anyone who contributes something to the conversation that we find disagreeable. Or—brace yourselves—offensive. For a country that claims to want an open dialogue, and to treasure free speech, we sure seem to enjoy mob justice against people who give an opinion contrary to the one we are comfortable hearing. Instead of physically beating someone to death, we feign shock, outrage and emotional anguish, until the person (or more likely the publicist) breaks down and begs our forgiveness.

Can we please stop embarrassing ourselves by pretending these apologies mean anything to anybody and own up to the fact they are simply a bloodless way to satisfy our bloodlust? Why exactly is it such a social crime to talk about the selfish nature of committing suicide? Why do people respond to such points by angrily stating how much pain the individual was in? Can’t both opinions be valid? Being in pain and behaving selfishly are not mutually exclusive.

I am not an expert in depression or suicide. What I know about suicidal feelings comes only from what I’ve experienced, not case studies or statistics. But I can tell you what it’s like to look over the edge of a cliff and convince yourself that jumping is the only option. In those moments, I saw only my own pain and was convinced that I would be doing nothing more than wiping a valueless person off the face of the earth.

Just because I was in pain doesn’t mean I wasn’t also thinking selfishly. That’s not to say that anyone who commits suicide is selfish, but it’s an observation one shouldn’t be crucified for making.

Which brings me back to apologies. Our cultural obsession with them isn’t about actually being offended, or simply needing to hear, “I’m sorry.” It’s not really about right or wrong. It’s about wanting to throw a rock in the dark and hear something break.

In the increasingly deafening and constantly morphing conversations on social media, it becomes more and more impossible for an individual and his or her opinions to stand out or to be heard. Going on Twitter or Facebook to gently voice dissatisfaction about something that someone said garners the same results as walking into a New Year’s Eve party and muttering to yourself in the corner. No one hears you or cares; it’s the ultimate form of social emasculation. It feels small and helpless.

But if you can get a few people at the party to scream with you at the same time, the rest of the people, who are enjoying themselves, will be forced to stop their revelry and take notice. And if, God forbid, you loudly announce you’ve been wounded, not only will everyone forget what they were saying and focus all of their attention on you; they will rally around you. They’ll listen to you. And most importantly, they’ll want to punish whoever hurt you.

No longer will you be the quiet person in the corner who has to live with the fact you heard something you didn’t like, you’ll be the one everyone is listening to and responding to and paying attention to.

Yet your offense at someone’s opinion should not be a precursor to further action. “I don’t like what you just said,” should end with a period, not a semicolon. When a celebrity offers a prescribed public apology, I feel nothing for them, and strangely embarrassed for the rest of us for requiring it. Even those of us who didn’t encourage the groveling are at best complicit because we watched the vultures circle instead of making some sort of effort to shoo them away.

We have become a country of voyeurs and rubberneckers who love nothing more than provoking a situation solely for the gratification of eliciting a response, then we convince ourselves we’re outraged so we can stand and watch the fire burn. A mouth full of broken teeth has been replaced with a tearful mea culpa in front of a bank of microphones.

The onslaught of fake outrage and insincere apologies is doing nothing to make our society a more compassionate, forgiving or understanding place. We are simply being trained to doubletalk and lie to avoid trouble. If we can’t think of a good lie or acceptable middle ground, we are taught to play it safe or say nothing at all.

And that makes me truly sorry. For all of us.

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