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LAWRENCE – When was the last time you heard a decent political apology? In the current hyperpartisan political atmosphere, they hardly exist. Doubling down is the rule. And, according to two new papers co-written by an instructor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas, our polarization is not only to blame, but threatens to foreclose one of the remaining civilizing forces standing between us and violent confrontation.
“There is no more mea culpa,” said Brett Bricker, who co-wrote the two articles with a former graduate student at KU, Jacob Justice, now an assistant professor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi. Bricker is a former national champion debater and champion debate coach.
The first paper, titled “When ‘I’m Sorry’ Cannot Be Said: The Evolution of Political Apology,” was published online in April in the journal Philosophy & Rhetoric.
The second, a case study titled “They Spoke in Defense of Roy Moore: Networked Apologia and Media Ecosystems,” has been accepted for publication in the forthcoming edition of the journal Rhetoric & Public Affairs.
In both cases, the authors blame hyperpartisanship, exacerbated by the free flow of social media, for diminishing the returns on a politician’s apology to less than zero – at least to himself. Indeed, all of the public figures cited in the two papers as bad rhetorical actors are men – mostly, like Moore, politicians credibly accused of sexual misconduct.
Bricker said he began to think that the scholarly literature on apologia – defined as a formal defense of an opinion, position or action – needed updating during the 2018 confirmation hearings for then-Supreme Court nominee and now Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Three women, most notably Christine Blasey Ford, came forward to accuse Kavanaugh of having sexually assaulted them many years prior to his nomination to the high court.
“One trend that we noticed was that, in contradiction to a lot of apologia theory in my field, which assumes that image repair requires putting oneself through this rigor of admission and reconciliation, it’s becoming much more common for people to engage in absolute denial and to blame the victim instead of seeking any personal reparation for one’s own wrongdoing,” Bricker said. “There is no more mea culpa. There’s just this conspiratorial attack, saying the victims are wrong and lying, and because of the other things that I can do for you politically, you should support me and my story.”
In this scenario, Bricker and Justice wrote, “the audience for apology has vanished.
“Acting as though they are accountable only to their most hardcore supporters, which may in fact be the case for politicians representing gerrymandered districts or states that tilt strongly Democratic or Republican, political elites scarcely worry about the concerns of voters not already in their partisan camp. … Non-apology has become a viable crisis response strategy because electorates reward political leaders that treat opposing partisans as enemy combatants in a culture war.”
The authors defend themselves against the critique of “mere nostalgia” for a kinder, gentler time, writing, “Apology is a fundamentally human act, and denial of apology is in effect a denial of our shared humanity. This state of affairs, which associates apology with emasculation and defeat, is harmful: It foments a toxic culture that denies redress for survivors of sexual assault and harassment …”
The inability to say “I’m sorry” is one thing. But the concept of “networked apologia” in the Moore paper is another that Bricker said needed exploring. Communication scholars have traditionally believed that what the apologist himself says matters most. But Bricker and Justice challenge that notion, citing the impact of the hyperpartisan media bubble many Americans inhabit.
“The factor we are paying closest attention to is how partisan ideology in an audience shapes the necessity of a response, or shapes the content of a response,” Bricker said. “There are media echo chambers developing, and in them apologia is not just done by the perceived wrongdoer. People were coming to his defense before Roy Moore even began to defend himself. There were stories developing on Twitter and in some conservative echo chambers about how these women were sluts and drug users and liars and shills from the Democrats.
“So what used to be a very top-down response — if you are perceived as doing something wrong, you must respond to it — now, there’s almost a political advantage to staying silent and letting your base or your followers develop their own narrative that you can then build on and play off of in future,” Bricker said.
While they explain these phenomenon, Bricker and Justice also decry them.
As Bricker said, “As apology diminishes, society loses one of its least violent means of remedying tension and addressing guilt.”
Image: Roy Moore caricature (used under CC BY 2.0) with bumper stickers, public domain. Credit: DonkeyHotey.
The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. The university’s mission is to lift students and society by educating leaders, building healthy communities and making discoveries that change the world. The KU News Service is the central public relations office for the Lawrence campus.
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