What, Me Sorry?

What made Mark Sanford and David Letterman's public apologies work.

There are many great things about not being a celebrity. One is that I am not dead of the celebu-flu that has been making the rounds. Another is that my apologies for sins, errors, and transgressions are all conducted in private.But for the famous, messing up requires a "my bad" loud enough for the whole world to hear. With the Mark Sanford apology-fest fresh in the collective mind, and David Letterman's Palin joke flap not far in the rear-view mirror, it's as good a time as any to look at a timeless tradition that no public figure wants to join.The problems with public apologies, typically, are the same as with private apologies. Many would-be mea culpas are really what Jon Stewart amusingly called a you-a culpa-instead of taking responsibility, bad apologizers toss it away like a live hand grenade. A classic example was Goldman Sachs chief Lloyd Blankfein's dodgy words "While we regret that we participated in the market euphoria and failed to raise a responsible voice, we are proud of the way our firm managed the risk it assumed on behalf of our client before and during the financial crisis." Matt Taibbi described it as "The Greatest Non-apology of All-time." Shifting responsibility this way is the not-so-secret ingredient of most non-apologies, as demonstrated by such tried and true tools of evasion as "Mistakes were made," "My comments were taken out of context," "I misinterpreted the rules," and the George Costanza-y "Was that wrong?"The now-notorious Mark Sanford did a far better job. His press conference was not merely a buffet of euphemism but a smorgasbord of sorriness, with specific apologies going out to his wife, children, staff, friends, and "people of faith across South Carolina." Though it turns out he left a few of the adulterous details out during that initial apology, he wasn't exactly evading the truth when he said, "...the bottom line is this: I have been unfaithful to my wife."University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman, who has written about public apologies before, was struck by something else: the jumbled nature of Sanford's speech. By email, Liberman wrote, "The most striking thing about his press conference and his late interview with the AP, I think, was how unpackaged they were, and therefore how messy and complex and human and incoherent they were. He ‘crossed lines' and ‘hurt people', but at the same time what he did was ‘his own prerogative', and he found his ‘soul mate', and ‘everybody's got their own value system'. Your standard political apology-wherever it is on the spectrum from ‘I was wrong, I'm sorry, I've learned my lesson' to ‘I'm sorry if anyone misunderstood me and took offense'-is at least a coherent package."So does incoherence imply sincerity? Maybe, because I feel a little bad for Sanford. A direct and organized statement prepared by speechwriters and P.R. gurus might get the point across more directly and sound more polished, but you can't script a genuine, messy, overflow of language and emotion. The soulmate talk isn't going to help Sanford's marriage, as William Saletan points out, but future apologizers who want to show their humanity could learn something from Sanford's refreshing word salad.Straight-up blame-accepting is never a bad way to go either. My lifelong love of David Letterman might color my perception, but I think his apology over the recent Sarah Palin flap-in which he inadvertently made a sexual joke about the 14-year-old Palin daughter-was spot on. Here's the money quote: "I told a bad joke. I told a joke that was beyond flawed, and my intent is completely meaningless compared to the perception. And since it was a joke I told, I feel that I need to do the right thing here and apologize for having told that joke. It's not your fault that it was misunderstood, it's my fault." That is pretty much the opposite of the "I'm sorry if you were offended" brand of non-apology.But even when public apologizers dodge blame like a falling flower pot-much like the lame-o private apologizers looked at by dating columnist Judy McGuire-the simple act of fessing up serves a purpose. That purpose was well-stated by linguist Geoff Nunberg, when he wrote of failed apologies, that "In the contemporary theater of contrition, the point of ritualistic public apologies isn't to demonstrate that an offender is really, truly sorry, but only that public opinion has the power to exact the expression of self-abnegation...."So pat yourself on the back, public opinion! Even if you treat the governors, television stars, and celububabes of the world as a mix of demigod, royalty, and genetic super-race, you at least have the power to make those celebs and politicians pretend to be sorry. These spectacles show that even the famous and/or gorgeous can't get away with everything all the time. To quote George Costanza again, "We're living in a society!" Public apologies keep the societal boat afloat, no matter how rough or polluted the waters. And sometimes, as with Sanford and Letterman, they're genuine, too.
Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

As world leaders meet to discuss new ways to tackle climate change at the U.N. Climate Action Summit, they might miss one very big part of healing nature – nature. In a new short film, youth climate change activist Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot, a writer for the Guardian, talked about how we need to use nature as a solution to climate change.

There's a huge push to curb emissions, but it's not the be all end all of handling climate change; we also need to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. While we don't have technology to do that for us, there is another solution. "There is a magic machine that sucks carbon out of the air, costs very little, and builds itself. It's called a tree," Monboit says in the film. Researchers found that we could get rid of two-thirds of the carbon dioxide that we've emitted during the industrial era just by growing trees. That amounts to 205 billion tons of carbon. Right now, deforestation of tropical forests is responsible for 20% of current greenhouse emissions.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
Climate Action Tracker

In 2016, 196 countries signed the Paris Agreement, pledging to combat climate change by taking action to curb the increase in global temperatures. The Paris Agreement requires countries to report on their emissions and what steps they're taking to implement those plans. Now that the countries are coming together again for the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York City, it's worth taking a look at what kind of progress they've made.

The Climate Action Trackerkeeps tabs on what each country is doing to limit warming, and if they're meeting their self-set goals. Countries are graded based on whether or not their actions would help limit warming to 1.5 degrees C.

According to a recent article from National Geographic, The Gambia, Morocco, and India are at the head of the class. "Even though carbon emissions in The Gambia, Morocco, and India are expected to rise, they'll fall short of exceeding the 1.5-degree Celsius limit," the article reads. Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United States, on the other hand, get a big fat F. "Projected emissions in Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United States are far greater than what it would take to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius."

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
Screenshot via (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

Greta Thunberg has been dubbed the "Joan of Arc of climate change" for good reason. The 16-year-old activist embodies the courage and conviction of the unlikely underdog heroine, as well as the seemingly innate ability to lead a movement.

Thunberg has dedicated her young life to waking up the world to the climate crisis we face and cutting the crap that gets in the way of fixing it. Her speeches are a unique blend of calm rationality and no-holds-barred bluntness. She speaks truth to power, dispassionately and unflinchingly, and it is glorious.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
Ottawa Humane Society / Flickr

The Trump Administration won't be remembered for being kind to animals.

In 2018, it launched a new effort to reinstate cruel hunting practices in Alaska that had been outlawed under Obama. Hunters will be able to shoot hibernating bear cubs, murder wolf and coyote cubs while in their dens, and use dogs to hunt black bears.

Efforts to end animal cruelty by the USDA have been curtailed as well. In 2016, under the Obama Administration, the USDA issued 4,944 animal welfare citations, in two years the numbers dropped to just 1,716.

Keep Reading Show less

The disappearance of 40-year-old mortgage broker William Earl Moldt remained a mystery for 22 years because the technology used to find him hadn't been developed yet.

Moldt was reported missing on November 8, 1997. He had left a nightclub around 11 p.m. where he had been drinking. He wasn't known as a heavy drinker and witnesses at the bar said he didn't seem intoxicated when he left.

Keep Reading Show less