So how does one achieve forgiveness from the permanently offended? Well, in the most extreme situations, there is always the shamefaced march to rehab (“It was the booze that inspired my Wagnarian fits of anti-Semitism, because such profanities don’t exist in my heart”). There is, however, a much cheaper option: the ritualistic public apology. As public pressure mounts on the offender, threatening to damage their own “brand” or a company’s earnings, a carefully crafted apology is released into the wild, America’s wounds are salved, and the braying mob moves on to its next victim. Nothing has changed, of course, but nothing was meant to have changed. Ours is an age of moral grandstanding—in 140 characters.
A few weeks ago, disgraced journalist Jonah Lehrer—someone whose transgressions I am well-equipped to judge, and whose apology I accepted, whatever that means—told a journalism conference that he was sorry for his “mistakes,” “errors,” “frailties,” “failures,” “weaknesses,” and “weak spots”—a rather nice way of saying “lies,” “deception,” and “plagiarism.” Lehrer, pleading like Peter Lorre trapped in a Berlin basement, said he couldn’t help himself, it was part of who he was, and he needed our help to avoid trespassing the boundaries of respectable journalism. He apologized without admitting too much; he was apologizing because he wanted back in.