Early last month, Daily Show heir apparent Trevor Noah got eviscerated on social media for a bunch of lame-ass jokes he'd told on Twitter between 2010 and 2014. The 140-character gags were as psychologically revealing as they were wretched, anti-Semitic and pro-domestic violence groaners that might land you a guest spot on Fox News's insipid Red Eye variety hour, and thus the usual battle lines were drawn. The iconoclastic Patton Oswalt decided to set his lofty Nerd God reputation on the line for this Jeff Dunham-caliber material, while activists and slacktivists of all stripes took to the barricades to demand redress. It was then that one of my friends, a minor figure in the outrage blogosphere, loosed the Facebook status that rocked my world: "What matters here is how Trevor Noah handles this apology."
Mea culpa, mea culpa! What mattered to this person, who is at base an extremely good person, wasn't that Trevor Noah had written some truly rotten material, but whether he would stick the landing on the apology. This is no fault of hers, since she, like most of us, is a creature of social media. Of course it's the act of public contrition that matters. Of course we trolls, who are trolling for justice for the best and noblest of all possible reasons, need to be propitiated. The story of how we have cultivated this obsession with public rituals and public performances largely unmediated by the demands of personal conscience is full of twists and turns, with social media but one of the new forms of communication that abetted its development. Even the public relations gurus of the 1920s and 1930s, who began fashioning the society of the stage-managed "public appearance," would find themselves astonished by what advances in technology have wrought.
But let's start early, like pre-Reformation Europe early. I was raised Catholic, and while the faith itself is every bit as nonsensical as any other man-made belief system, it has some interesting features, among them a mechanism for undertaking periodic examinations of conscience (i.e., the sacrament of penance and reconciliation). The usual lackluster Catholic does this every few years at Easter, but it's the point of the process that counts: Jesus urged people to consider their own thoughts, not just their actions, and to address these before addressing the failings of others. From there, flash forward to Protestantism's ascendancy—which is easy in our case, since there's never been a time, post-colonization, when it wasn't ascendant in America. The most rigorously logical Protestant theologians quickly grasped the implications of an omnipotent supreme being: If such an all-powerful creator fashioned everything from beginning to end, aren't human actions preordained and won't it be obvious that those humans who are "saved" will act like they're "saved"? Hence the emphasis on surface appearance—which has always been there anyway but perhaps was checked ever-so-slightly by the need for a periodic examination of conscience—returns with a vengeance.
This was a splendid thing for the economic development of the United States, which owes itself as much to an obsession with salesmanship as it does with any one particular technological breakthrough ("We didn't invent the German rocket plane, we just marketed the hell out of the space race!"). When you're selling, you're always on. You can't afford to slip up, to say something gauche, to break the fourth wall. America in the 20th century, noted the historian Daniel Boorstin, witnessed an efflorescence of increasingly elaborate "pseudo-events": news conferences, award ceremonies, and political addresses made use of new communication technologies and assumed the ritualistic qualities of medieval passion plays while also fetishizing the individuals involved. But this elevation of the public side of once-private, or at least partly private, people also entailed the replacement of outdated methods of localized public humiliation (e.g., the stocks and pillory of yore) with the stage-managed national apology.
And oh how the mighty apologized...while leaving an opening for the inevitable comeback, of course. "[My family] did get something after the election, a little cocker spaniel dog named Checkers," admitted Vice-Presidential candidate Richard Nixon after being accused of using campaign donations to finance personal travel and other expenses. "Indeed, I did have a relationship with [Monica] Lewinsky that was not appropriate," President Bill Clinton finally confessed to the American public after several weeks of Monicagate-related damage control. "I did a bad thing," perpetually befuddled English leading man Hugh Grant told Jay Leno after the former had been arrested for engaging in lewd conduct with a prostitute.
All three of these men came back, survived, endured—prospered, even (except for Nixon, though he did win those back-to-back presidential campaigns). But, Clinton's own remarks notwithstanding, none kept the matter "between me, the people I love most, and our God." Penance and reconciliation was fine for the cloister, but when it came to those public figures who presented their selves to us on an everyday basis, only a pound of flesh would suffice.
But those contretemps occurred pre-Twitter. Social media has inflated the immediate significance of everything; yesterday's pound of flesh is today's outright flaying. As Jon Ronson noted in a penetrating examination of the deconstruction of Justine Sacco, a hapless, not-especially-public publicist who tweeted a bunch of racist comments that gave rise to an "ideological crusade against her bigotry" while also serving as "form of idle entertainment" for a bullpen of internet wits. As the scrutiny piled on, each attacker burying her deeper and deeper, her chances of a comeback were reduced to nil. She wasn't important enough for that; she was no Anthony Weiner-esque political heavyweight or even especially talented in her field. She eventually took an anonymous job in some anonymous part of the country and vanished from view. One of her primary tormentors later apologized to her, which was par for the course.
Ronson's attempts at humanizing her aside, this Sacco wasn't exactly Nicola Sacco. No, she was just a poor, doomed soul who unwittingly dug her own grave. She didn't even stick around long enough to offer a scripted, stage-managed apology. But the bigger names do, usually in the face of intense pressure from well-orchestrated online activist communities. The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham couldn't have devised a better panopticon for policing public statements on issues both great and insignificant; everyone everywhere could be watching (we both hope and fear!), and even our most thoughtless remarks never go away.
Twitter and Facebook received a lot of praise for their role in having sprung the so-called "Arab Spring," but they've done an even better job of bringing the misanthropic ex-liberal Alec Baldwin to heel. They offered a platform for crushing Girls writer (and, full disclosure, one-time VICE editor) Lesley Arfin when she offered a riposte to The Hairpin's allegations of racism. Rashida Jones had to make nice via Twitter after accusing John Travolta of being gay. Daniel Tosh half-apologized on social media for making a rape joke about a woman in the audience at one of his stand-up shows, but that seemed to quiet his critics. Rent-a-hunks Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans cracked wise during an Avengers: Age of Ultron media event, calling Scarlet Johansson's Black Widow character a "slut" and a "whore," then immediately denounced their off-the-cuff remarks as "juvenile and offensive" and "tasteless" even if directed at a fictional character.
And on and on the list goes, with the accused generally conceding quickly—the smartest course from a PR standpoint—or responding à la Stephen Colbert, with both guns blazing, to Suey Park's allegations of racism following an ill-timed tweet (the account the tweet came from, @Colbertreport, was not affiliated with the Colbert Report, but the tweet, "I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever," was taken from a Colbert bit). Colbert had enough social media clout of his own to bury Park, who came to be regarded by many as a shrill spoilsport in spite of her good intentions.
Colbert's defense of his comedy, like Patton Oswalt's equally dogged defense of Trevor Noah's futile stabs at it, is no worthier of praise than Daniel Tosh's rapid-fire semi-apology for being a jackass. Neither changes the fact that a remark cut someone to the quick or that this remark was anything but deliberate. Of course it was intentional; it was intended to be said, and it was. But Tosh and the others who have followed his example surely elected the most prudent response. They at least said the words in the way that people like my friend will demand. Never mind that these words, even if laden with well-meaning terms like "consciousness raising" and "teachable moment," may not involve even a moment's examination of conscience. One's internal thoughts are... of no consequence! What matters is for our public personalities, an almost infinitely broad category that consists of everyone from Kim Kardashian to Justine Sacco (First Amendment jurisprudence even has a term for such nobodies-turned-somebodies as her, the "limited purpose public figure"), to come forward and speak the magic words: "I was wrong. I was bad. I didn't mean to hurt anybody but I guess I did" and perhaps, if they're really feeling up to it, "my thoughts and prayers go out to everyone involved," a sort of saccharine-sweet ganache to spread on top of the apology cake.
Today's requests for forgiveness are shaped by this model of the instantaneous and totalizing apology. How else can one understand Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel's apology for his alcoholism? "I owe private apologies to a lot of people that I disappointed but a very public one to the Browns organization and the fans that I let down," read his public statement on the Browns' official website. So here we have a man in the throes of a terrible disorder, a disorder that has claimed the lives of many of my family members and probably a few of yours too, and he's giving a public apology to the fans that he let down. Apologizing for suffering from alcoholism, from an American Medical Association-classified progressive disease! If only he'd added that ganache, that "my thoughts and prayers go out to all involved," it would have been perfect.
But as with every historical development, we should pause to consider the alternatives. What is the point, strictly speaking, of this ritualized public apology, now more than ever forced upon us by the panoptical surveillance of social media? The worst crimes are quite literally unforgivable. What sort of mea culpa, mea culpa from a slimebag CEO could ever make up for years of utilizing slave labor or despoiling a limited supply of natural resources to grow better and better strains of corn? What would it matter if some militia-backed strongman apologized for years of mass murder? There are various theological mechanisms for such penance—the Catholic sacrament being just one among many—but an apology offered in the world would seem to be of little consequence for those villains whose crimes warrant swift and certain justice. And for clueless boobs like Daniel Tosh and Trevor Noah, what difference does it make if they apologize for their churlish wisecracks? They made these remarks, they're now out there for all to hear or read, and it's left to them to examine their consciences and conclude where they fell short. The same goes for putatively well-meaning "allies" to various social movements who, for whatever reason, have decided to go off the rails and say something racist, sexist, transphobic, or just outright inhumane. Isn't it on them, in the final analysis, to search within for answers? And for those of us so eager to pile on, so eager to cast socially shareable stones—shouldn't we engage in a similar act of self-reflection?
In sum: I tried to vindicate my points, and those of you who made it to the bottom of the page were so very patient with me. Please accept my sincerest apologies, and know that my thoughts and prayers go out to all involved.
Follow Oliver Lee Bateman on Twitter.