Opinion

How to judge a public apology in the age of cancel culture

Three questions to ask during and after a heated controversy

Lin-Manuel Miranda apologized. Bill Maher got angry.

Miranda is the Hamilton phenom whose new movie musical, In the Heights, has been criticized for colorism because it features light-skinned Latin actors in the leading roles — even though it is set in the much more diverse neighborhood of Washington Heights, New York. Miranda has apparently taken the critiques to heart: Last week he apologized on Twitter. "I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling still unseen in the feedback," he wrote, and added: "In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short. I'm truly sorry."

That was too much for Maher, who sounded off Friday night on his HBO show, Real Time.

"Do I think he really thinks he needs to apologize? I don't," Maher grumbled. "He just wants to avoid the news cycle. I don't blame him, you know. I understand this, but at some point, people are going to have to stand up to these bullies because that's what it is! It's bullying."

Public apologies have always been fraught, but never more so than in the age of perpetual outrage on social media and so-called "cancel culture." Expressions of contrition are both frequent, and frequently judged to be hollow — the cliche of expressing regrets "if anybody was offended" has justly become something of a joke. Statements are often appraised based on how they move the ever-churning news cycle. And if a public figure apologizes too quickly or too lavishly, there's a whole sector of observers — mostly on the right — who will push back, against either the supposedly censorious "mob" that provoked the apology, or against the weakness they believe the apology represents. A celebrity or politician can't say "I am sorry" without it becoming about Everything Else in the Discourse. The notion that public regret might represent an individual's sincere reflection is rarely considered.

I have no idea what was in Miranda's heart when he apologized, and neither does anybody else. That's part of what makes judging this process so tricky. But I do sense we would benefit as a culture if we could cut through the noise of our endlessly loud debates to make more room for meaningful apologies, real forgiveness — where merited — and, hopefully, real healing when an offense has taken place. We can start by asking three questions, using the In the Heights controversy as our guide.

Who got hurt? Not every "controversy" that hits the headlines is worthy of the name; many dustups are simply manufactured for the sake of clicks, money, or votes. But it's also the case that what hurts me might not hurt you; it doesn't mean your injury doesn't matter. So it makes a childish sort of sense that Maher doesn't see a need for Miranda to apologize. After all, he (a middle-aged white man with his own TV show) wasn't hurt by the movie's casting. Afro-Latinos, on the other hand, have faced a long history of color-based discrimination. There's real pain there. Expressing it is not "bullying."

What is the expected standard? We appraise people, churches, institutions, and countries by how well they comport with their professed values — and take note where there's a gap. Miranda, in both Hamilton and In the Heights, has made a very public point of bringing diverse faces and experiences to the stage and screen. It's probably fair to judge him on how well he performs the task. In this case, he arguably fell short.

What happens next? Instead of Miranda, let's look at Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D). Two years ago, it was revealed he wore blackface at a party when he was a medical school student in the 1980s. There were calls for him to resign. He didn't. Instead, as The New York Times reported last week, Northam apologized and then pivoted to becoming the "the most racially progressive governor in the state's history" — passing police reforms, abolishing the death penalty, and raising new funds for the state's Black colleges.

Meaningful apologies, public and private, are usually accompanied by changes in behavior that compensate for the offense, or make it less likely to recur in the future. But such evolutions can only be fairly judged over time — and that requires patience, which is elusive in the "action today, reaction tomorrow" speed of our current culture. 

That leaves us in a necessarily incomplete place, as far as Lin-Manuel Miranda goes. He has promised to "do better," but we won't see what that really means, or if he has done so, until his next musical, movie, or TV show some months or years down the road. It's not too early to say Bill Maher is wrong. Sure, we too easily resort to cheap outrage in this country, but sometimes a genuine expression of contrition — in our politics, our culture, and our personal lives — is good and necessary.  

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