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‘Never apologise, never explain’ turns out to be right

October 28, 2019 - 11:25am

“Never apologise, never explain” is one of those phrases that has ended up being attributed to Winston Churchill, like everything. It may have originally been said by Victorian Oxford scholar Benjamin Jowett, along with “Get it over with and let them howl”.

And it turns out to be strong advice.

A new study from Columbia University presents the results of an experiment in which respondents were given two versions of two real-life controversies involving public figures. Approximately half of the participants read a story that made it appear as if the person had apologized, while the rest were led to believe that the individual had stood firm. HT: Cory Clark

In the first experiment, hearing that Rand Paul apologized for his comments on civil rights did not change whether respondents were less likely to vote for him. When presented with two versions of the controversy surrounding Larry Summers and his comments about women scientists and engineers, however, liberals and females were more likely to say that he should have faced negative consequences for his statement when presented with his apology. The effects on other groups were smaller or neutral. The evidence suggests that when a prominent figure apologizes for a controversial statement, individuals are either unaffected or become more likely to desire that the individual be punished.
- Does Apologizing Work?

One of the bigly reasons for Donald Trump’s success was surely his refusal to apologise when provoking outrage; although many of things he’s said in the past are genuinely grotesque, the use of shaming for badthink has been so overused that they’ve lost their power. As a friend at the time observed, Trump is like antibiotic-resistant super-virus totally immune to this form of shaming.

And even if Trump’s a horrendous human being, that still makes him appear strong, and preferable, to a politician who cowers and apologises when the self-appointed guardians of morality demand their cancellation. It’s long been apparent that people demanding public apologies aren’t actually interested in forgiveness or whether what the person says is actually true (the Larry Summer’s argument about maths was perfectly valid, and at least debatable); they want submission. This is one area where I’d say that modern social justice politics has diverged from Christianity, which has forgiveness and redemption at its core. It’s a much more modern (or perhaps ancient) worldview, about crushing your enemies into the dust.

The public, however, tend to still quite reasonably assume that if someone apologises then they must have done wrong, and should be punished.

Unfortunately, without a sense of forgiveness or a generous definition of what’s open to debate, public discourse is bound to coarsen; people on the Right are going to cotton on to the Trump strategy, and the line between what is a valid debating point, like Larry Summer’s argument about maths, and what is just rude, unkind and abusive, will get lost.

Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable


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