2017 has been a banner year for mean man apologies, and we still have one more quarter to go. A fertile source of recent apologies stems from Silicon Valley’s self-reckoning of sexual harassment, kicked off by ex-Uber employee Susan Fowler’s now-legendary February blog post. As noted in my prior post, the company failed to address Fowler’s case of harassment, fueled by a persistently sexist company culture. Two public apologies, of the five examined in more detail below, were issued in reaction to the subsequent call by women in tech and women entrepreneurs to bring harassers to justice and name the sexism for what it is.
To be clear, not everyone is apologizing. As the latest manifestation of white male privilege in the Valley, ex-Google employee James Damore, fired for his now infamous memo detailing in part how women are biologically less fit for tech work, subsequently told the Wall Street Journal that his memo wasn’t problematic, the consequences were. But the tech world is not the only one in which mean men are being forced to answer for their behavior. In Hollywood, in the US House race, and in a Brooklyn courtroom, some mean men are being held to account.
Others expect a public statement to make it all better. Even when they occur, there is something disturbing about these “apologies.” It isn’t merely these individuals’ refusal to take responsibility, which we have seen again and again in mean men across industries (but most prominently in tech). No, it is even more so our willingness to allow a few well-chosen, PR-motivated, and artfully-framed phrases to erase the bad behavior and in some cases, crimes.
We have entered the era of the postmodern apology. When powerful men screw up, they perform what is at best a meaningless, socially enforced ritual and at worst a calculated ploy to regain the exercise of power at others’ expense. Whereas genuine apologies seek to repair the damage done to victims, the damage-control apology so popular today belies a complete lack of empathy and serves only to aggrandize the mean man.
In fact, there is plenty of evidence in the apologies themselves to clue us in to the magnitude of their egregious behaviors. Here are but five examples.
Chris Sacca: The Glamourpology
This remarkable piece of rhetoric serves as this series’ longest apology, clocking in at a whopping 2500+ words with an addendum bringing the total up to nearly 3000. Just look at the sentence that introduces his original apology post: “The words that follow are my heartfelt process for reconciliation and growing the work I have been doing for years to bring about permanent change in our industry and our lives.” Oh, wait, you’re giving us a list of accomplishments? You’d think he’s been awarded a Nobel and is warming up to his acceptance speech… The actual apology waters down harassment into nothing more than “[making] some women feel awkward, unwelcome, insecure, and/or discouraged.” But what’s truly shocking is just how much time Sacca spends discussing all his contributions to women since his days of youthful bro-ing about—at least two-thirds of the “apology.” Thanks so much for all you’ve done, Chris!
Dave McClure: The Creepology
Most notable about McClure’s post is the repeated use of “inappropriate behavior” to stand in for harassment as well as the de-personalization of the women he’s victimized. As pointed out by founder Cheryl Yeoh, whom he cornered in an empty apartment when the two were in an investor-investee relationship, such language minimizes and covers up what really happened. McClure is not quite as masterful as Sacco at self-aggrandizement nor does he claim that he’s really changed. His tack is to admit his “imperfections” openly and appeal to people’s sympathy, like Radiohead’s “Creep” does so well.
Greg Gianforte: The Stratepology
Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte’s apology was most notable for its timing. Let’s go over the order of events. The Honorable Congressman Gianforte:
- Body slams Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs upon being asked a question about healthcare.
- Has his office release a statement that alleges provocateur liberal reporter Ben Jacobs started trouble and that Gianforte stood up to him.
- Rides conservative media coverage of him as a hero willing to stand up to “snowflake” Millennial liberals all the way to victory in the US House of Representatives.
- Apologizes without naming his wrongdoing directly during his acceptance speech, to overwhelming applause from a room of devoted supporters.
Michael Einfeld: The Abomination
Nothing comes quite close to the emetic nature of Michael Einfeld’s apology for a violently misogynistic email about his female assistant. In his cellphone text apology to her, he manages to use a gay slur and joke about Holocaust extermination camps both extensively and in disturbing detail. What distinguishes this apology from the others on this list is its intended private nature. It was not prepared by a team of publicists and strategists, but instead dashed off by a guy who thought this series of texts would smooth things over. Is this a good indication of what other mean-man apologies would sound like without PR intervention?
Martin Shkreli: The Ain’t-Never-Gonna-Happen
The smirk on disgraced former pharma CEO Shkreli’s face during trial is emblematic of this mean man’s refusal to admit he’s done any wrong. He indicated with his winks and frowns to the press that the whole trial was a joke, and called it a “witch hunt.” Even as evidence of his ruthlessness piled up in court—including violent threats to employees and their families— Shkreli played it cool, as though the whole thing was a Soviet show trial, a mere formality orchestrated by his enemies.
As Shkreli bends reality around him with his jester performance, he creates a parallel universe where none of what he’s done has anything to do with his forthcoming sentence. It’s us who should be apologizing to him.
For all the mean men yet to issue hollow and insincere apologies in 2017, I’ve put together a handy guide to help:
The Official 2017 Mean Man Apology Guide:
- Use Vague Language: Be imprecise when naming the behaviors that you are sorry for. Or just keep your mouth shut and ignore everything.
- Diffuse Responsibility: Whether it’s society, ignorance, bro-culture, being an asshole who can’t spell, or being the victim of a witch hunt, make sure you have something to blame. But be careful to not start blaming someone. You’ll just have to repeat the cycle all over again.
- Change Focus/Flatter Yourself: In some cases, it becomes necessary to shift focus away from the wrongdoing and toward one’s accomplishments or sudden enlightenment. One powerful way to change focus is to deny wrongdoing entirely. Yes, you, too can create a Jobsian “reality distortion field.” Be just like Steve!
- Watch the Timing: Apologize only when beneficial for one’s public image. If at all possible, avoid apologizing entirely, but if you must, use time to your advantage. Do not consider whether timing will ameliorate the hurt caused to the victim. That’s not the point of your apology in the first place.