Mea Culpa: Why sorry doesn’t seem to be the hardest word

By Dawood Ali McCallum 

“That was a mistake. I’m sorry about that. I take responsibility.”

“I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize.”

Hillary Clinton apologizes over private emails; takes responsibility

The first of these quotes is Hillary Clinton’s September 2015 acknowledgement of an error of judgement in using a private email server for official communications when Secretary of State. The second is Donald Trump’s October 2016 response to the publication of the ‘locker room banter’ tape in which he pithily summarises his attitudes and approaches to women. Both have been universally described as apologies, but are they really? I wonder…

Donald Trump denies the latest allegations as ‘locker room banter’


In his 1956 book ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ the Sociologist Erving Goffman described the elements of an apology as being embarrassment, acknowledgement of the rule broken, sympathy for the resultant ostracism, disavowal of the offending behaviour, vilification of the former self associated with that behaviour, a commitment to pursuing correct behaviour in the future, the performance of some sort of penance and the offer of restitution. He also talks about the importance of ‘face’. The wrong causes the transgressor to lose face which can only be recovered by an apology. But I suspect political apologies, whilst clearly about saving face, are rather more simple and self-serving, aimed solely at achieving a political end, or bringing an end to a political problem.

Tony Blair
Tony Blair expressed sorrow, regret and apology over the Iraq war.

We in the UK have become pretty used to and cynical about politicians apologising: Nick Clegg’s wonderfully spoofed “I’m sorry” video for breaking his party’s election pledge on tuition fees; William Hague’s regret over the numerous abuses in Kenya during the Mau Mau Emergency; David Cameron’s carefully crafted refusal to apologise for the massacre at Amritsar and Tony Blair’s expression of “sorrow, regret and apology” over the Iraq war.  In each the words are painstakingly chosen based on just how much personal, political, financial and legal accountability the apologiser wants to accept.

Little surprise therefore that many of these statements are nuanced or conditional: ‘I apologise to anyone who may have been offended…’ is a perfect example. It implies that real, grown up adults don’t require, and are excluded from, this apology because they wouldn’t be bothered by what the wrongdoer has done. It suggests those to whom the apology is limited are themselves somehow at fault for being so prissy or over-sensitive. Even when the regrets expressed are not so limited, there is still a subtle denial in apologising ‘if’ rather than ‘for’ something. This is but a short step to the passive/aggressive, total responsibility shifting non-apology. You know the type; we’ve all done it: ‘I’m sorry if you have a problem with…’ type of statement, ideally expressed in a hard done by, slightly hurt, more-in-sadness-than-in-anger tone of voice. You’ve never done that? I’m sorry, but I don’t believe you.

"I'm having to become quite an expert in this business of asking for forgiveness.”
Bill Clinton once observed, “I’m having to become quite an expert in this business of asking for forgiveness.”

Bill Clinton once observed, “I’m having to become quite an expert in this business of asking for forgiveness.” Contrast his wholesome and dignified 1997 Presidential apology for the Tuskegee syphilis experiments (“The American People are sorry…”) with his 1998 non apology pay-out of $850,000 to Paula Jones to end her sexual harassment suit against him without any acceptance of responsibility and one can see why. And that was before his numerous expressions of regret over the Monica Lewinsky scandal which prompted that wry aside.

But no matter how uncomfortable Trump and the Clintons may have found making their respective expressions of regret, it is as nothing to what the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV endured to seek the Pope’s forgiveness in 1077. Having trekked across the Alps he spent three days kneeling in the snow before his apology was accepted and his excommunication lifted (although he did overthrow and exile the same pope three years later, which probably tells us something else about political apologies). Still with the papacy but nine centuries on, John Paul II was perhaps history’s most prolific public apologist, issuing over 100 expressions of regret during his 27 year pontificate. He apologised for the Church’s past global failings (e.g. the Crusades, the treatment of women, the slave trade and the holocaust) as well as specific wrongs (e.g. the trial of Galileo and the execution of Jan Hus) and in case he’d overlooked anyone he threw in a couple of general expressions of regret to the world at large.

There’s clearly a difference between apologising for the transgressions of an institution, particularly if one wasn’t actually in charge, or even alive, at the time of the regretted event and apologising for one’s personal shortcomings. In the case of the Clinton/Trump statements above I wonder if there isn’t also a difference between apologising for what one has done; one’s decisions and actions (Clinton) and apologising for who one is; one’s attitudes and character (Trump)? Indeed, Trump’s statement, likened by one newspaper to a hostage tape, takes us back to where we started. Is this really an apology? No. It’s simply a political expedient.

Previous such examples often end with the earnest, and occasionally desperate, ‘I hope we can now put this behind us and move on.’ I just bet you do. But just as a personal apology needs to be acknowledged and accepted as such by the recipient, so too do we, the recipients of the political apology, get to decide if we permit it to achieve closure. Why should we? Where’s the penance? Where’s the redemption? Show me some profound change. Where’s the kneeling in the snow?

Neil McCallumDawood Ali McCallum is the author of three novels published in India and
one (The Last Charge) published last year in the UK. His first story, The Lords of Alijah, is available to download free for a limited period at