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Dead Tree Alert: In Defense of the Fake Apology

Why public contrition can be useful, even if the apologizer doesn't really mean it.

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Last week, Ted Nugent went on the radio and sorta-maybe-not-necessarily apologized to President Obama for calling him a “subhuman mongrel.” In this week’s New York magazine, Alec Baldwin, having apologized previously for outbursts offensive to gay people, now says he’s quitting public life and complains about being ganged up on by the “Gay Department of Justice.” Phil Robertson said sorry, Paula Deen said sorry, Martin Bashir said sorry, politicians and corporations and ABC’s Bachelor have said sorry.

Or: sorry if you were offended. Or sorry I got caught. As I write in my newest TIME print column, we are in the midst of a Cirque du Désolé of ritual apologies. Some of them may be sincere; it’s hard to believe all of them are. Which raises the question: does an unconvincing, forced, and maybe entirely insincere fauxapology do anyone any good?

I argue yes: not for the apologizer, or maybe even the apologiz-ee, but for everyone else who sees the message that there was something to apologize for. I’m sorry that my column is behind a paywall, and I’m sorry that I can only offer a snippet here:

Public apologies are different from, well, real ones. A real apology, between actual private humans, needs to demonstrate true remorse and learning on the part of the offender and needs to make the injured party feel better. But in a public apology, the apologizer, and maybe even the apologizee, is beside the point. The real point is the rest of us–the larger society, asserting the norms and changing boundaries of acceptable behavior… A calculated, self-interested apology at least tells the rest of the audience someone did something wrong, while the apologizer figures that out in his or her own time, if ever.

TIME subscribers can read the rest in full. By the way, I want to thank the many followers on Twitter who responded last week when I asked for their own thoughts about fauxpologies as I was cogitating on this topic. And if you think I got this one wrong, I sincerely–well, you know the drill.

To read the full column, subscribe to TIME (print and digital for just $30/year).