Sorry About That; The Language of Public Apology by Edwin L. Battistella. Oxford University Press, 2016, paper.


This past May, President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima, the target of an atom bomb on 6 August 1945. He is the first sitting president to visit the city where 100,000 Japanese, Koreans, and a few American prisoners-of-war were killed or died soon after from the radiation associated with the blast. His speech was not an apology to the Japanese, but there are in it, elements of an apology.


According to Edwin Battistella, a public apology would have contained words like “I apologize on behalf of… .” But it didn’t. However, the “offense” was named and described in the apology, and there was much said about the lessons learned from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the second target of an atom bomb within days of Hiroshima.  These are important elements of an apology.


Back in 1988, on the other hand, Japanese-Americans were the recipient of an apology from the US Congress. It apologized for their internment for the duration of the war, some 117,000 men, women, and children in what is euphemistically called a “wartime relocation.” Compensation was provided in cases where property was seized.


Wars generate occasions for apologies. Battistella, however, is more interested in apologies from writers, entertainers, politicians, and other public figures. In his memoir, James Frey, a writer, described his long battle with drug and alcohol addiction. It was subsequently discovered to be fictional. He apologized on the Oprah Winfrey show and then Winfrey apologized for her anger at his plagiarism. She confessed that she should have shown compassion rather than censure.


Talk shows have proven to be a popular arena for various contrite individuals to make apologies. The social media is proving to be an even more inviting opportunity.


Vice President Joe Biden found himself in a difficult situation during his run for the presidential nomination against Barack Obama in 2007. Wanting to compliment his opponent, he suggested that Obama was “the first African-American that is articulate and bright, a clean and nice-looking guy.” Whoops! Obama was not offended, obviously, it was meant to be a compliment. And Biden’s apology “worked.” Al Sharpton, a Democratic candidate for the Presidency in 2004, chimed in that he takes a bath every day.


Often apologies involve complicated language. Sometimes they are couched in the conditional voice. “I do apologize if (my emphasis) she was offended by my remarks.” “I would like to apologize…” and “I want to…” describe intentions, short of apologies. “I am sorry if you took my remarks wrong” shifts the transgression to “you.” “Mistakes were made…” the passive voice was used in a 2002 apology, after McDonald’s admitted that it had used beef fat in the processing of its fries, offending vegetarians and Hindus.


Lots of apologies are associated with sexual transgressions. And Battistella has good fun with them. Jimmy Swaggart, a Pentecostal preacher, was caught with a prostitute at a New Orleans airport hotel. Swaggart‘s 2000-word apology was tearful but convincing. He had sinned, omitting most of the details, and then asked his television congregation and his God for their forgiveness. The confession was sincere, from the heart.


Three years later he was stopped by a cop for driving on the wrong side of the road. He may have been distracted by his passenger, a prostitute.  Rather than apologize again to his congregation, he said that the Lord had told him that his love life was flat-out none of their business.


Battistella suggests four strategies of self-defense in a public apology. Denial needs no elaboration; it may be the most honest. Bolstering is when you add to your apology something like “I am not that kind of person.” Differentiation: “I am apologizing but the transgression of which I am accused was not really sexual harassment, but being friendly and open.” Transcendence; “I believe that I am coming out of this experience a better man (woman).”


Two examples of self-defenses: Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech where, holding the family pet dog, he defended himself against charges that he had maintained an illegal slush fund bolstering his self-revelation with dog love. And Senator Edward Kennedy’s 1969 Chappaquiddick speech where he described what he had learned as the result of his failed efforts to save the life of Mary Jo Kopechne, (Transcendence?)


An incident during the Iran-Iraqi War involved an attack by an Iraqi jet on an American ship. We were trying to keep the Gulf open to oil shipments while selling arms to both sides. Saddam Hussein, longtime president of Iraq, apologized to President Reagan and expressed his regret, denied hostile intentions, shifted blame to the Iranians, and offered condolences. And the apology was accepted!


In 2004 American soldiers at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq subjected Iraqi detainees to various forms of illegal interrogation. We used the “few bad apples” defense. We acknowledged the damage done to the reputation of the American army serving in Iraq but otherwise no apology.  The Bush Administration and the military leadership became victims of those bad apples rather than perpetrators.


After reading Sorry About That a public apology will never be the same.


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