By Aashika Ravi
In the immortal words of Miley Cyrus, “Everybody makes mistakes, everybody has those days.”
In a culture where political correctness and staying woke can make or break your image, a single one of those ‘days’ can result in social suicide. The bigger you are, the harder you fall. There’s even a Tumblr account which has taken it upon itself to inform the public about how problematic their favourite celebrities are.
Jon Ronson’s 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed examines the tendency of social media to crucify and ostracise its victims. According to Ronson, Tweeters are both “the hanging judge” and “the people in the lithographs being ribald at whippings.”
To be ignorant or rude is a universal phenomenon, and it often gets the better of us on social media. Everyone of us will have those days, but it is important to acknowledge that something went wrong, and to set about fixing it with a humble apology.
This week alone, we’ve seen several gaffes on social media, all followed by various degrees of head-hanging and apologising. First, Ola Cabs issued a flimsy apology in response to the sexual assault of a Bengaluru woman by one of their drivers.
Next, Priyanka Chopra was forced to apologise for her involvement in TV show Quantico’sepisode featuring a Hindu extremist terror plot. This inspired Dubai-based chef Atul Kochhar to go on a factually incorrect Islamophobic rant on Twitter in response to her apology, which he then received immediate flak for. Kochhar then had to take the public apology route himself, when he admitted to being wrong and insensitive in his remarks. He may face legal action despite the apology, but that’s a whole other story.
Finally, Malini Parthasarathy, former editor of The Hindu, was forced to delete her insensitive comments about the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade.
It’s easy enough to issue an apology. You may even do that difficult thing internally and accept your mistake. Perhaps. What’s just as difficult is to issue a credible, sincere apology that convinces the people of the internet to put down their pitchforks and open a dialogue instead. The only absolution, it seems, is in how you respond to your mistakes.
So what went wrong with these celebrities, and how can we eat humble pie gracefully?
The social media apology is an art. Like any art, it has rules, conventions and ultimately, says more about the artist than anyone else.
Unsurprisingly, this subject has been tackled before. Derek Powazek, author of Design for Community, has a helpful guide on how to apologise online, complete with a comparison between Kickstarter’s straightforward apology on disturbing misogynistic content they had inadvertently helped publish, and Paula Deen’s weak apology on using inappropriate language.
1. It’s all in the details
Powazek takes us through the steps that a good apology must contain, including some rather unpleasant but necessary ones, like restating the problem. It helps clarify the situation to all parties involved and lets them know you’re aware of what went wrong.
Earlier this year, the creator of the TV show Community, Dan Harmon, issued a public apology to Megan Ganz, who had previously worked as a writer for the show. In a Twitter exchange, as well as a podcast, he admitted to sexually harassing her and treating her ‘like garbage’ while she worked with him.
In Harmon’s case, he went into a detailed explanation of his wrongdoings, which, while very difficult to do in itself, can also help the recipient of the apology. Ganz called it “a masterclass in ‘How to Apologize’”, saying that hearing him vocalise what happened made her feel like she “didn’t dream it and wasn’t crazy.”
Closer home, when we asked The Ladies Finger community what they thought, writer Shruti Ravi talked about the vital need for apologies, and not just for the person who has been wronged. She said, “It’s absurd that we feel a sense of vicarious validation when reading about someone else not gaslighted.”
2. Be Specific
When apologising, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to salvage your self-respect. Once you wholeheartedly embrace the fact that you messed up, it opens up so many avenues to learn and re-shape your opinions.
Digital rights activist and writer Inji Pennu shared her personal account of posting a video of a child who refused to take a shower after which an adult poured water on him. She thought it was funny at the time until she was informed that children with nerve disorders behave in a similar way. “I put a new post, deleted my original post and profusely apologised in the new post about my insensitivity and arrogance,” she says.
In 2010, when golfer Tiger Woods did his due diligence and apologised after a cheating scandal that shocked the world, he opened his statement with a blunt, “I want to say to each of you, simply, and directly, I am deeply sorry for my irresponsible and selfish behaviour.” It was clear that he wasn’t going to mince words.
3. Bring in changes
Two other things Kickstarter did which swung things in their favour had to do with taking clear and transparent steps to prevent similar incidents from happening again and turning the event into an opportunity to redeem themselves. The original content that had slipped past their supervision was a ‘seduction guide’ that portrayed women in poor light and even advocated sexual assault.
After the incident, they changed their guidelines to ban all such ‘seduction guides’, and made a donation to an American charity related to the cause, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Both of these were steps we rarely see big corporations undertaking. In Ola’s case, no structural changes have been made in their functioning, and no amends have been made either.
4. Stop selling yourself
A huge mistake that people make when issuing a public apology is to try and make it about something else. The apology should always be about the victim and have nothing to do with any hidden agenda or manipulative behaviour. In this matter too, we can learn from celebrities on how not to do it.
Actor Kevin Spacey’s apology, if it could even be called that, to actor and singer Anthony Rapp’s accusation of sexual assault, was one of the worst 2017 had seen. Instead of admitting guilt, he said he didn’t remember his behaviour, and followed it up with a conditional sorry and an ‘I was drunk’ tacked on the end. For his final trick, he comes out of the closet. Using the apology as an opportunity to come out as gay screamed “Give me sympathy”, but rightfully, he got none.
5. Speak from the heart
The final and most integral ingredient that holds your apology together is sincerity. If you begin with a sincere intent to apologise and set things right, the other steps won’t feel like a chore. Most apologies are issued in the wake of overwhelming pressure or a drastic reaction from Twitter. These apologies are seen exactly as they are — empty, forced and devoid of remorse or a willingness to change.
Earlier this year, Youtuber Logan Paul had to apologise after he filmed a dead body in the Aokigahara Forest in Japan, and he managed to cause even more outrage with his initial apology. It was all about himself and his stardom and came off as insincere and self-absorbed.
To make mistakes is human, and to be in a position of privilege can open you up to a lot of unfair scrutiny and pressure. However, to gracefully apologise with your dignity intact means being clear, sincere, and without fear.
The internet can be a vindictive place where your mistakes will live on forever. But if you are earnest about redeeming yourself and serious about making positive changes, even the faceless masses will accept your apology with equal grace.