It is the year of our lord 2017 and everyone is sorry. I’m sorry we’re here, you’re sorry you have to read this, and the parade of high-profile sexual offenders are the sorriest of all.
Louis C.K. is sorry he’s so famous and so admired that whipping out his dick caused women to be upset (even though he totally asked first, you guys). Harvey Weinstein is sorry that he grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. Al Franken? He’s just sorry he let everybody down. (Minus the 36 SNL alums who swear he treated them with nothing but “respect and regard.” Which I guess will not be the title of his inevitable tell-all.) But not as sorry as Kevin Spacey, who’s sorry that Anthony Rapp has terrible memories of him.
“I owe him the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior,” Spacey wrote. Because yes: It would have been pretty bad had he come onto an underage young man in this hypothetical situation that Spacey would like us to believe never happened.
So congrats! Everyone is sorry! (You get a sorry, and you get a sorry, and you get a sorry!) Now Matt Lauer is the latest carrier of the sorry torch.
“To the people I have hurt, I am truly sorry,” he said in a statement following his firing from NBC for sexual misconduct. “As I am writing this, I realize the depth of the damage and disappointment I have left behind at home and at NBC.”
And had he just left it, we at least would’ve been an apology on par with Jack Berger’s in Sex and the City when Berger dumps Carrie Bradshaw via Post-It: “I’m sorry, I can’t, don’t hate me.” But alas, Lauer continued — they all have to continue — one-upping his predecessors with a cornucopia of feelings, sentiment, and … nothing concrete. Plus, a denial.
“Some of what is being said about me is untrue or mischaracterized, but there is enough truth to these stories to make me feel embarrassed and ashamed,” he continued. “I regret that my shame is now shared by the people I cherish deeply.”
So he is sorry that he’s ashamed. And sorrier still that he has to share that shame. (This was his shame, goddamn it, and how dare he be made to divvy it up.) But even worse, amid his sorries and regrets and appreciation to those rallying around him, he is sorry that we’ve been given information that isn’t necessarily true. “I’m sorry,” I can imagine him saying, “that some of you don’t know the whole story.”
And I get it, man, I do. I get it as much as I get the apology of George H.W. Bush, who blamed his tendency to grab women by their derrieres on his wheelchair and on our inability to recognize comedic timing. “At age 93,” a statement from Bush’s people read, “President Bush has been confined to a wheelchair for roughly for five years, so his arm falls on the lower waist of people with whom he takes pictures,” a statement read. “To try and put people at ease, the president routinely tells the same joke (‘Do you know who my favorite magician is? David Cop-a-Feel!’) — and on occasion, he patted women’s rears in which he intended to be a good-natured manner.”
“To anyone he has offended, President Bush apologizes most sincerely.”
The former president is sorry that you humorless women weren’t into his bit — “David Cop-a-Feel” being indisputable comedy gold — and he is sorrier still that they couldn’t distinguish between a good-natured tap on the “rear” and the kind that causes women’s stomachs to drop in shock and revulsion. And while I personally am sorry the word “rear” was used in a professional context — and sorrier still to be reminded through that “joke” that David Copperfield has had his own allegations against him — I am still less sorry than President Bush, who regrets that we don’t know that wheelchairs exist on a plane where you have no choice but to be handsy.
But with so many allegations floating around, it’s important that we press pause to acknowledge that while someone may have done something bad, the accused might not have known it was “bad.” Maybe, when the door locked at the press of a button in a certain Today show host’s office, it would’ve helped if a woman hadn’t internally screamed or sat frozen in fear and learned to laugh it off because it’s just flirting, it’s just a joke, and I thought we were all just having a great time. Because, Jesus, lighten up! These men are sorry.
And they have so much to be sorry for. They’re sorry they got caught, sorry they weren’t smarter and sneakier, sorry they have to take time out of their day to say they’re sorry. They’re sorry they’re being painted as someone they tell us they aren’t (despite being exactly that thing).
“I’m sorry that people are so jealous of me,” Gretchen Weiners infamously says in Mean Girls. “But I can’t help it that I’m popular.”
At least Gretchen was being genuine.
Because the thing about the year’s apology marathon is that they all lack the one thing that makes sorry stick: remorse. By hiding behind excuses, behind success, behind technicalities, or behind the names of SNL alums who swear Al Franken is good enough, smart enough, and goddamn it, people like him, they make it very clear what they are sorry for: being unlucky enough to be dragged publicly in the wake of their bad behavior.
Real remorse looks like quiet, simple defeat. It is the sound of the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack with your head down shamefully walking off into the night. It is the complete and total acceptance of one’s own shittiness, and the acknowledgement of being The Worst. It is taking accountability and retiring your post to somebody better, somebody more worthy.
So let’s save time on the next one. Let’s prematurely accept the apologies for being so famous, so rich, so slim-seeming in a suit. Let’s prepare ourselves for how sorry somebody is for their affinity for explicitly describing their sexual fantasies to a co-worker, or how their khaki zippers keep opening without being prompted, or how well-endowed they are. (So, honestly, it’s actually your fault for being offended at what you saw in the first place.) Over the next few days and weeks and months and years, we are going to be hearing the word “sorry” a lot. I’m just sorry no one actually is.
Anne T. Donahue is a writer and person from Ontario, Canada. She’s written for Esquire, Cosmopolitan, and Playboy, and her first book, Nobody Cares, comes out in September 2018. You can find her on Twitter at @annetdonahue.
First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstname.lastname@example.org.