It's never been easier to say 'sorry', but rarely has it felt so empty

Performative remorse has become prevalent in modern society. It's worth examining why

Will Smith slaps fellow American actor Chris Rock onstage during the Oscars in Hollywood, California, in March. AFP
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Forty-six years ago this week, Elton John was scaling the upper reaches of global pop charts with Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word, one of the best-known and most enduring songs in his storied back catalogue.

While the song itself has stood the test of time, the sentiment expressed in its title is out of step with the moment we now live in.

"Sorry" has rarely seemed a more popular word to say and yet rarely has it felt so empty. Humility has too often given way in 2022 to grandstanding apologies served with a side order of unrepentant justification.

An essay in The New Yorker magazine last month called this “performative remorse”, when citing Will Smith’s post-Oscars apology on social media for the slap-punch he landed on Chris Rock at the awards ceremony.

“I was out of line and I was wrong,” Smith said solemnly in the aftermath of the incident, before adding that he was “trying to be remorseful without being ashamed of myself".

In that instant, Smith seemed to prove that mea culpas really aren’t what they used to be.

There are multiple examples in the world of politics, business, sport and entertainment.

Sam Bankman-Fried tried last month to say sorry after his FTX cryptocurrency empire fell apart spectacularly. During rounds of media interviews designed to frame the FTX fall as stemming from bad decisions rather than potential fraud, SBF admitted: “I screwed up."

Sam Bankman-Fried issued a strange apology after FTX, his company, collapsed. Bloomberg

He followed it up with the strange assertion to The Puck that “I spent a lot of last month apologising but I don’t know how much the apologies mean to people” – as if there was a threshold beyond which he didn’t have to atone any more or justify his actions – and added that "what happened, happened".

Earlier this year, Liz Truss spent a few weeks as UK prime minister before being forced to leave office after her botched recovery plan sent the British economy into a tailspin.

“I do want to accept responsibility and say sorry for the mistakes that have been made,” she said as she sought to cling on to power in the middle of October. “I wanted to help people … but we went too far and too fast,” she added unrepentantly.

Ms Truss left Downing Street a few days later, suggesting as she departed that her government had acted “urgently and decisively” but did not make any further admission of error.

Boris Johnson, her predecessor as prime minister, spent much of the early months of this year “unreservedly” apologising for breaching lockdown rules during the pandemic, while failing to convince either his opponents or the British public of his sincerity.

This week, former Cameroon and Barcelona footballer Samuel Eto’o had what he described as a “violent altercation” with an Algeria fan after Brazil’s round-of-16 tie with South Korea at the Qatar World Cup.

Eto’o, who is now the president of the Cameroon Football Federation, later took to Twitter to “apologise for losing my temper and reacting in a way that does not match my personality”, before apparently saying that if he was challenged again he’d react in exactly the same way.

“I pledge to continue to resist the relentless provocation and daily harassment of some Algerian supporters,” he wrote. The antipathy between the two nations relates to an acrimonious World Cup play-off in which Cameroon prevailed earlier this year.

Which brings us to one final example from the sporting world.

Australian cricketer David Warner has recently sought to appeal against the lifetime ban on a leadership role in international cricket imposed on him after the 2018 “sandpapergate” ball-tampering episode, which involved two other Australian players.

Warner made a tearful apology following the rule-breaking incident and served a ban from cricket. At the time, he expressed a hope that he “may one day be given the privilege of playing for my country again”, which he has on many occasions subsequently, but has now withdrawn his appeal to have his leadership ban overturned.

When he decided not to pursue his appeal, Warner said he was not prepared for the process to retry his original offence while it considered the question of whether he could ever be a leader of the team again. He’s right to an extent, but he also sought to shape the terms of the process, which some will feel is overstepping the mark.

His case seems to rest on whether any of us believe in the rehabilitation of individuals and whether he could also be overreaching in his expectations for his future. Both outcomes are possible.

Many of us find it hard to truly forgive and forget, which might also explain why performative remorse has become so prevalent.

Maybe Demi Lovato’s Sorry not Sorry is the most appropriate emblem for our times rather than Elton John’s ballad for the ages, because we now live in a world of conditional contrition.

Published: December 08, 2022, 2:00 PM