Why Men Won’t Apologize

They feel entitled to forgiveness in the same way they feel entitled to say and do awful things to women. What is it about powerful men and apologies? Were they out sick that day in kindergarten, or do they really believe that making amends for bad behavior is simply beneath them?

Don’t bother responding — we all know the answer.

This week, two men gave master classes in how not to apologize. After Florida Rep. Ted Yoho called Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a “fucking bitch” in earshot of a reporter, the congressman took to the House floor to address his comments. His mea culpa? Denying that he ever used “the offensive name-calling words attributed to me by the press” and apologizing for “their misunderstanding.” And while Rep. Yoho admitted to having an “abrupt manner” of speaking, he insisted he “cannot apologize for my passion.”

Men’s harassment and verbal abuse, we’re told, is actually “passion,” “ambition,” and “excellence.”

The same day that Rep. Yoho did this rhetorical dance, another powerful man was choreographing his own. Troy Young, president of Hearst Magazines, responded to accusations of sexual harassment — one woman recalled him telling her that, while on a date, she should put her fingers in her vagina and ask the man if he liked the smell — by noting that “the strength of my commitment is ambitious, and I sincerely regret the toll it has taken on some in our organization.” A Hearst spokesperson added that Young’s “relentless pursuit of excellence was at times combined with a brash demeanor that rubbed some the wrong way.”

So men’s harassment and verbal abuse, we’re told, is actually “passion,” “ambition,” and “excellence.” It’s almost as if they’re not sorry at all.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez responded on Thursday to Rep. Yoho’s “apology” in a speech that I’m willing to bet will be cited decades from now in feminist textbooks. She talked about how women have had to deal with verbal abuse and harassment throughout their lives — whether at bars or on the steps of the Capitol. She spoke about how the language Rep. Yoho used against her didn’t even bother her that much, because she had become so accustomed to the abuse throughout the years. It was Rep. Yoho’s attempt to save face — that weak statement he called an apology — that she felt called to respond to.

“I could not allow my nieces, I could not allow the little girls that I go home to, I could not allow victims of verbal abuse and worse to see that — to see that excuse and to see our Congress accept it as legitimate and accept it as an apology,” she said. “I could not allow that to stand.”

None of us should. This is why women find it so egregious when the men who have been ousted from their jobs or public life by #MeToo (or more accurately, by their own bad behavior) are surprised to find they are not welcomed back with open arms. Feminists are chided about ruining these men’s lives, or asked how much time we expect them to pay — as if simply disappearing from view for a few months is akin to being jailed or destroyed.

But how many of these men have actually apologized? I don’t mean how many have issued press releases expressing regret or equivocating about harm done. Because I’m sorry you took it that way; I’m sorry if anyone was hurt by my comments; I’m sorry for the pain I may have caused are not apologies.

What I want to know is how many men who have hurt women have legitimately spent time, energy, or money to make amends. The answer is almost none. They feel entitled to forgiveness in the same way they felt entitled to say or do something awful to women.

The days of meaningless apologies are over — they have to be.

As Rep. Ocasio-Cortez noted in her speech, “When a decent man messes up, he tries his best and does apologize. Not to save face, not to win a vote. He apologizes, genuinely, to repair and acknowledge the harm done. So we can all move on.”

We will never be able to move on from sexism, from assault, from verbal abuse and harassment until the men who perpetrate these offenses take responsibility for their actions. Not with mealy-mouthed excuses, not with denials of wrongdoing, and not with expectation of absolution without repentance.

Avoiding an apology won’t make the offense go away — if anything, it underscores what a coward the man really is.

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