The idea of the apology is simple — say you’re “sorry” and all will be forgiven. It’s religious, even — a major pillar of Catholicism is confessional; the will-call of Heaven where the cost of admission is little more than a verbal “Forgive me, Father.” Even on a secular level, “sorry” is what you say to someone whose foot you’ve stepped on, when you don’t quite know how to comfort someone who’s had a bad day, and, if you’re Jay-Z, when you’ve cheated on Beyoncé.
His new album, 4:44, is a public “Sorry about that!” letter addressed to her, a 10-track admission of guilt delivered over the readily Top 40 production work of No I.D.
In opener “Kill Jay-Z,” he raps, “You almost went Eric Benét. / Let the baddest girl in the world get away.” On “Family Feud,” he talks over Beyoncé's background vocals, saying, “I’ll fuck up a good thing if you let me. / Leave me alone, Becky,” (an unmistakable aside to “Becky with the good hair” of “Lemonade” fame … a.k.a. the person he cheated with). And, on the album’s title track, he laments: "I apologize, often womanize / Took for my child to be born to see through a woman's eyes.”
People are going crazy for this new, vulnerable Jay-Z. The album went platinum in less than a week (probably because he owns Tidal), and well-respected publications like Pitchfork have called his "apology and reassessment" a "vehicle for his own maturation,” as if his acknowledgment of his wrong-doings were some sort of groundbreaking symbol of sophistication; a kind and thoughtful gesture enacted after much admirable introspection and self-work.
Yeah, well. We’re calling bullshit.
Celebrating someone for apologizing does the same thing Catholic confessional does, which is to make the person apologizing feel they’ve successfully reversed the hurt and that’s that. “Sorry” means the issue is over; that the drama has climaxed. It signals to the people involved it’s time to move on.
Yet, in reality, the person hurt may not be ready to move on. They may need continued validation, reassurance and processing. A public apology like Jay-Z’s pushes those things out of reach — he said he was sorry, what more do you want?
A mea culpa of that breed hardly cancels the hurt, but, when a rapper is seen as “lucid” for admitting he needed a daughter to understand he was treating Beyoncé poorly and for blaming the other woman for infidelity (“Let me alone, Becky”), it becomes clear not everyone understands that.
"That’s not fair to the women he hurt," QZ’s Annalisa Merelli points out. "And frankly it isn’t fair to men, who should be held to much higher expectations, and not treated like perennial children, to be congratulated for simple displays of decency.”
Jay-Z is hardly the only high-profile example of this lately. A recent rash of tepid, public apologies from high-profile men like big-shot investor Chris Sacca or Silicon Valley mogul Dave McClure —both of who sexually harassed their female employees — has highlighted the ineffective flaccidity of public apologies and the misunderstandings the men who make them have about the women they’ve harmed.
For many, this has elucidated an important question: is "sorry" enough?
According to Ruth Jampol, PhD.,of GoodTherapy.org, the answer is a resounding no, but with a caveat: it’s all about how you say it. What's more, it’s not just about “saying” it. An apology is a both a statement and an action; a continuous process that far transcends the sort of one-time atonement we seem to think it does.
The right way to apologize not to simply apologize, but to hold a space for the person to whom you hurt many times as as often as it takes for them to trust you again. You have to listen to them non-defensively and accept that they have a different experience of the hurtful even than you do. You have to validate, not minimize their hurt.
That’s pretty far from what Jay-Z, Sacca or McClure did with their apologies.
Jay-Z's apology album is arguably little more than a stunt to generate the same amount of attention that "Lemonade" did in an effort to keep up; as if it it needed some sort of meaty, Beyoncé-related drama to be relevant during a decade where Jay-Z’s name has fallen off the airwaves.
Meanwhile, Sacca and McClure both issued public apologies that made it seem like it was somehow the fault of the women they harassed for feeling offended … not their own fault for offending or harassing them.
In his public apology on Medium, which has been “hearted” by thousands of readers, McClure apologizes for “inappropriate behavior in a setting I thought was social, but in hindsight was clearly not.” Yet, he writes about what he did in a way that makes them sound subjective, not objectively wrong: “While I’d like to believe that I’m not a bad or evil person, regardless it’s clear that some of my past actions have hurt or offended several women,” he writes.
In other words, "I'm sorry you got hurt by what I did," not "I'm sorry that I did something hurtful.”
Same thing with Sacca, who also featured his public apology on Medium, which is apparently the premiere place to admit you've been a dick.
“By stupidly perpetuating a culture rife with busting chops, teasing, and peer pressure to go out drinking, I made some women feel self-conscious, anxious, and fear they might not be taken seriously,” he says, highlighting how these women felt … not what he did to them. It makes it seem like the women had a choice in how they felt.
Nevertheless, people are living for these apologetic men. One commenter on McClure’s letter wrote “Dave has taken the hard step to correct it through apology, confession, and commitment.”
“It took […] a lot of ‘balls’ for Dave to write an apology like this,” writes someone else.
“Thanks Chris for taking responsibility where you feel like you’ve been at fault,” a comment on Sacca’s post says. “That’s not an easy thing to do. Thank you for using your voice and your resources to make a dent in this issue” … as if his apology would un-harass the women he worked with.
We’re not saying these men’s attempts at reparation weren’t sincere. We’re sure they were full of earnest emotion. Some of them may even signal a change in behavior (less harassing?) Still, it’s important to realize that the amount of praise they got for doing so both diluted the severity of their actions and cut the victims of them out of the picture. Their apologies become the story, not what they did to elicit them.
All that praise makes their infidelity and sexual harassment seem like nothing more than stepping stones on their bath to “grown-ass-manhood;” like they "just had to harass a few people" before they became fully actualized men. We’d be interested to see how Beyoncé and the women targeted by Sacca and McClure feel about that …
Instead of praising Jay-Z, McClure and Sacca, we should recognize a real apology, and real vulnerability, when we see it. A worthwhile "sorry" would be a.) not profiting from it or using it to compete with the person you hurt for attention (ahem, Jay-Z), b.) an objective one in which the sentiment wasn't "Sorry you're hurt," but "Sorry I hurt you" (ahem, McClure and Sacca) and c.) most importantly, having the actual guts to let the person you hurt process the pain with your help and understanding (provided they feel safe doing that with you, which the women who were sexually harassed by McClure and Sacca may not).
To do these things is to validate the person in pain and to take actual responsibility for your actions beyond empty statements that steal the spotlight from the people who actually need it.
Sorry we're not sorry! Congrats on those twins though, Jay-Z.