We used to live in a world of second chances. You make a mistake, say I’m sorry, and try to do better the next time. It could be a big mistake. It could be a little mistake. But either way, we are all taught from a very young age how important it is to be honest, admit your wrongdoing, and try not to let it happen again. Sometimes, the mistake is severe enough to warrant a penalty. When you’re a teenager, a small mistake could get you grounded. As an adult, a large mistake could get you prison time. But either way, showing remorse for your crime could potentially get you a lighter sentence – a shorter prison sentence, or just two weekends of no friends, phone, and internet, and maybe out earlier for good behavior and community service.
Truthfully, we all like to think of ourselves as being the sort of person who forgives. If someone does something wrong and shows remorse, we would like to think that we would grant them the benefit of the doubt that they are actually remorseful. In that way, we all fancy ourselves as Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Valjean committed a crime in his youth, paid his debt to society, showed remorse, and believed that he should be free to make better choices after being released from prison (or after stealing some silver from a church).
However, our society is no longer forgiving. (Some may argue it never actually was.) If someone makes a mistake, apologizing is no longer enough. Take, for example, comedian Kevin Hart. The story has died down recently, but once upon a time, Hart was the hottest comedian in Hollywood, so much so that he was offered the coveted position of hosting the Oscars. When tweets and jokes from ten years prior resurfaced, Hart was forced to apologize – which he claimed to have already done – or be removed from hosting duties. He decided not to give into mob demands and apologize for something he already addressed. This led Hart to step down as host, instead of continually being forced to apologize for the same thing over and over again.
To a far lesser extent, I was called out for this myself. A few weeks ago, I wrote a column in which I addressed my response to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tweet directed at the Jewish community. At the time, I pointed out that de Blasio was moving from mayor to furher, a position I now regret, and expressed so in the column. This didn’t stop me from getting attacked on Twitter for the apology. “You can’t just walk back such a statement, as you tried doing,” one twitter user commented. “Comments such as yours only serve to further inflame people against people of our faith.” You see? I am not allowed to apologize anymore. It’s not enough to say I’m sorry, despite that I didn’t just say I’m sorry. I wrote a column as to why I was sorry, where I went wrong, and where I have to be better, and I posted the column on the same medium as the initial tweet. But no, apologizing is no longer enough.
This world that we live in is how we got someone like Donald Trump, a man who since taking office, has apologized for nothing. The man walks back no comments, regardless of how incorrect they are. Instead, he chooses to battle those who call him out head-on, calling them fake news, liars, partisans, and enemies of the people. He knows that saying “I’m sorry” in this day and age is tantamount to an admission of guilt. We don’t allow people to be the “bigger man” anymore. Walking away from a battle is now seen as weak, so we see double-down after double-down on the most idiotic statements and actions the world has ever seen.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam knows this. After a yearbook picture of him in either blackface or a KKK hood surfaced, Northam walked back his initial apology, and decided to dispute that either of the two men in a picture on his page of his yearbook were, in fact, him. And you know what? That has worked out pretty nicely for him. He’s still the governor of Virginia. And he’s still the guy who was either in blackface or wore a KKK hood in medical school. But in today’s day, denial is stronger than apologetics.
That leads us to former Vice President and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who, in the span of a few hours last week made an off-the-cuff racist remark in an interview with radio host Charlamagne Tha God (to Mr. and Mrs. Tha God, a son, Charlamagne). Knowing the remark was racist in its essence, Biden was quick to issue an apology - and this wasn’t one of those generic politician apologies that are some variant of “I’m sorry if someone was offended.” The apology admitted wrongdoing, and even stated that people shouldn’t vote based on their race. But because of the world we live in, this isn’t enough for some people. These people include my fellow columnist for the QJL, who, in his column this week, stated, “[Biden] apologized to let the media off the hook, not because he truly believes that any group that is ‘supposed’ to vote for him has the right to vote for Trump. He apologized so the Left can say, ‘let’s move on.’”
To that I say: Can’t the man just say he’s sorry? Why is it that every time a public figure tries to apologize or walk back statements, must we find every single reason to discount the apology? Is the type of world we want - one where every person must defend everything they say from here to eternity? Can’t people admit when they’re wrong without everyone using the apology as a reason to dissect the reasoning behind it? Is that the way you would want to be treated the day when inevitably you do something that warrants an apology? Would you like to be told that an apology is not enough?
What would have been a better course of action for the Vice President? Should he at this point just tell the black community to vote for Trump? Would that be enough? He did the best he could given the hole he dug himself. I just wish some other politicians – de Blasio when charged with anti-Semitism, Cuomo when charged with sending COVID-positive patients back to nursing homes, Trump when charged with…talking – would know how to do the same.
You see, we all think of ourselves as Jean Valjean. But in fact, we are actually Inspector Javert, the antagonist to Jean Valjean. Javert believes once a criminal, always a criminal, and nothing you do throughout your lifetime can change that. Only today, we do not have to commit an actual crime to be doomed to a life of not being given the benefit of the doubt. Today, our only crime to justify this loss of the ability to say “I’m sorry” is being on the wrong side of a political debate.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.