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Louis C.K. and the ethics of apology, revisited

Is there ever a right way to apologize for sexual misconduct, for sexual harassment, for rape? If so, people seem to think Louis C.K. is the prime example. Louis C.K., a stand-up comedian whose routines frequently make light of men’s hypocrisies, recently released a statement admitting that all five allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against him are true. Louis C.K. admitted to masturbating in front of women (in one case, doing so over the phone) without consent in all cases but one. Consent or not, the abuse of power is evident in all cases. What is troubling is that a sizeable portion of people have lauded C.K.’s statement for its maturity and correctness, something I am having trouble wrapping my head around.

I recently wrote an article in which I argued that guilty men, like Harvey Weinstein, commonly issue public apologies in order to reframe their actions as moral failures and to avoid legal punishment. For fear of being repetitive, I was unsure if I should write on C.K.’s apology. But considering how many men have been outed as sexual abusers, and the fact that the statements abusers release are, above all else, opportunities to leverage power and reframe the situation, I felt I needed to revisit the topic of apology.

There’s a reason things are repetitive right now and it’s because they need to be. After Weinstein, dozens more men have been outed as rapists or harassers, including actor Kevin Spacey, actor Ed Westwick, Republican politician Roy Moore, filmmaker James Toback, actor Ben Affleck, celebrity chef John Besh and former president George H.W. Bush. Two allegations have been made against former Stanford professors. As I was writing this column, my sister called to inform me that a boy from our hometown whom we both interacted with was accused of drugging and raping six women. We are in a dizzying place right now as a society because the normalized patterns of sexual assault against women, of which we are all aware on some level but can feign ignorance, are hypervisible. In this important space, where dozens of men are issuing apologies, it is important to make sense of what apology means and what apology does.

Generally, we expect apologies to be vehicles for genuine regret and remorse. We expect the person who did wrong to take responsibility for the harm they caused. This includes ensuring that the apology “fits” — that it corroborates the victim’s narrative with the correct tone. Nonetheless, apologies are performative, whether private or public. This performativity is particularly problematic in public apologies. C.K.’s apology is not addressed solely to his victims but also, to a large extent, to the American public. Because of this, these public apologies are almost guaranteed to be heavily edited and influenced by a P.R. team. Even if the apologies are the genuine words of the abuser, the fact that the apologies are addressed to society at large elevates them past the primary function of communicating guilt. The public apology becomes a social commentary on the situation at hand. It’s confusing to hear people lauding C.K.’s apology on two levels: I am suspicious of anything a serial sexual abuser has to say, and the public apology allows C.K. to exercise power in shaping the narrative of sexual assault.

Leah Fessler, Annalisa Merelli and Sari Zeidler at Quartz edited C.K.’s statement to “make it a real apology.” This included adding the words “I’m sorry” and omitting parts in which C.K. says he wasn’t conscious of the effects of his behaviors. They also highlighted what they felt C.K. did well, such as when he admits that he “took advantage of the fact” that he was “widely admired,” a fact C.K. concerningly revisits multiple times in his statement. They especially appreciated this portion of the statement:

“There is nothing about this that I forgive myself for. And I have to reconcile it with who I am. Which is nothing compared to the task I left them [the women] with.”

This is what we would like to hear from sexual abusers. We would like them to take responsibility. But there is no alternate universe in which C.K. didn’t choose, consciously, to repeatedly abuse women. We know the cultural script: Powerful sexual predators are outed, and only if there is social backlash, predators buckle under pressure and present a public apology. When this happens on a monumental scale, the situation is slightly different. What is happening now allows for us, collectively, to exploit the social expectation of apology. This moment in time, an enormously difficult, angering and triggering time, allows us to attack the apology and the way that abusers use it. It’s no longer just Weinstein and his singular statement. It is dozens of men. There is enormous power in denying the validity of their apologies, and this comes from not just denying the content but the form of apology itself. We cannot accept even “perfect” or “good” apologies like C.K.’s. The public apology is a social discourse that occurs on an enormous level. We have the chance to speak on that level when we deny their apologies. We have the chance to complicate their access to shaping this discourse in their favor.

Even if C.K. had done everything possible to ensure his apology was “perfect,” even if he didn’t rationalize his behavior, even if he hadn’t crudely mentioned his “dick” twice, it still wouldn’t matter. These apologies contribute to a social environment in which sexual assault is normalized. Why is it so normal to be able to simply issue an apology for sexual abusing someone? In this space, right now, we have the chance to collectively show that no public apology will do the work serial abusers hope it will — reframing the situation, justifying their actions, blaming the victim or, even simply, expressing guilt.

 

Contact Medina Husakovic at medinah ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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