There are people who live without regret, sincere in the belief that they have no apologies to make to anyone, for anything, ever. These are not necessarily people you want to emulate; a short, off-the-top list goes something like 1) Kanye West, 2) Most Toddlers and 3) Non-Toddler Sociopaths. Being a grown-up human being means living with not just the knowledge that you can but the certainty that you will occasionally be awful and mess some things up -- not just in some passive it-just-happened formulation, either, but by actually doing something idiotic and wrong and subsequently getting busted for it. And then -- again, provided that you are not Kanye West or a toddler -- you will feel remorseful and embarrassed, and say as much to the offended party, and move on towards whatever's next, and maybe be a little less likely to be a jerk next time. We get taught to apologize in kindergarten or thereabouts, and then spend the rest of our lives figuring out how to do it properly.
We get plenty of practice at this. Most of us spend the entirety of our twenties engaged in one decade-long mistake-and-apology workout, deliriously busting ass from station to station, getting too drunk here, then knocking out some sets of romantic infidelity, mixing in some rapid-fire reps of workplace incompetence and misdemeanor self-righteousness before cooling down with a few dozen facepalms. You're tired at the end, of course, but you're also fitter and generally feel better. Get enough apologies under your belt and the prospect of apologizing isn't even anything to dread. It, like the athletes say, is what it is: a natural movement, a human thing that's sort of innate and sort of learned but fully familiar and even comforting after a while. Which makes it that much more astounding how impossibly difficult apologizing appears to be for hugely successful people.
This week alone, we've seen Serena Williams quoted in Rolling Stone being weirdly callous and cruel about a 16-year-old who was raped while unconscious by a pair of high school football players in Steubenville. We've also seen Televised Butter Golem and blaze-orange chef/hamstress Paula Deen evincing a disconcertingly offhand comfort with a very old and ugly racial slur that starts with the letter "N." Both have sort of apologized, poorly.
Williams, professional that she is, opted for an unsatisfying gloss on the popular "if anyone was offended, I would certainly be sorry for them that they were offended" sports-pology, then threw some passive-voice topspin on it by not quite acknowledging that she said what she said. ("I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article," is how Serena's statement addresses this. "What was written -- what I supposedly said -- is insensitive and hurtful.")
Deen, in an uncharacteristically somber mode and without her usual honeybaked makeup, posted a 46-second video on YouTube, then made it private, then made it public again, and then took it down altogether. There's a version of it still up, and it's full of contrite-seeming tautologies -- "Inappropriate, hurtful language is totally, totally unacceptable," which: yes, by definition it is -- earnest hope that she will "grow from this" and a general sense of regret without any actual acknowledgment of what, beyond "mistakes," she so regretted. (A second, longer, less-polished and both huffier and more convincing apology video is out there, too.)
It's almost certainly unwise to use Paula Deen as a standard for any sort of human endeavor, given that she makes her living by cacklingly stuffing whole hams into butter-glazed cheesecakes on basic cable. It may also be unfair to expect much in the way of empathy or nuance from Serena Williams, a person who endured the warping experience of having been precision-engineered to win tennis matches since she was a very young child. Williams is maybe not much more or less blinkered and narcissistic than any other great athlete; Deen may or may not be significantly more unconsciously, unconscionably ignorant than anyone else in her demographic cohort. And while they would make a hilarious and brilliant pairing in a buddy cop movie, it's undeniably weird in the extreme to be looking at the two together. But there's a lesson in the way that these two biffed their respective apologies.
It is not a lesson for you, probably, or any other normally functioning human. You almost certainly know how to apologize: look someone in the eye, honestly express the regret that you feel for the mistake you made and the hurt you caused, and ask for forgiveness. It's one of the simplest and most thoroughly grown-up things a person can do. Most adults know better than to try to finesse an apology with forays into the mistakes-were-made passive voice, because it sounds fake and shifts the focus. By the same token, most adults are not grandiose enough to mention in an apology that they hope to "grow" from an embarrassing mistake, because a person you just wounded probably won't care to hear about your personal growth plans. Most people figure out how to say and be sorry sooner or later, and know that the better you are at it the likelier you are to live a happy, decent life.
No, the lesson is more for people who -- whether by dint of a champion's protective narcissism or a self-protective lack of insight or just plain righteous selfishness -- have not figured this out. This seems, by and large, to be those famous enough to issue public apologies. The lesson is simple: mean it, or don't do it. If you're sorry, be sorry and say you're sorry. If you're not, own that. Anything else is something of an insult, not just to The People Who Might Have Been Offended At That Time By Any Comments I Allegedly Made, but to everyone in earshot, and those who have acknowledged that none of us get to be right all the time.
This comes down to editing, finally. The passive-voice obfuscations and absolution-request phone calls to Leaders In The Community -- and I promise Jason Collins has better things to do than field crisis-control phone calls from the next dozen professional athletes caught up in some idiotic self-made "no homo" shenanigan -- and general stage-managed rhetorical bloat: find those things in your statement and delete them. Identify the thing you did wrong, and apologize for having done it. Do not apologize to "anyone you might have offended;" apologize to everyone you've offended. Don't say you're going to grow from it. Just grow from it. Start by considering that you might actually have been wrong, and in being wrong hurt other people who are just as real as you are, and by feeling sorry about that. It's not difficult, and it seems a lot easier than maintaining the illusion that you -- unique among all the rest of error-making, self-defeating, flubby and beautiful humanity -- are somehow the one being wronged, again.