In a memorable New Yorker cartoon, a chicken blessed with a rainbow of feathers indignantly confronts an outraged bird arrayed only in plain white: “I refuse to apologize for having plumage!”
An Internet, Twitter or Facebook search reveals no shortage of unfeathered creatures who also refuse to apologize:
- I refuse to apologize for what I look like.
- I write young adult novels and I refuse to apologize for it.
- Why I refuse to apologize for speaking boldly.
In what may be the ultimate apology refusal, an FB page called “Legalize Freedom!” resists remorse for eight full paragraphs. The post begins: “I refuse to apologize for believing in America and all that she stands for: freedom, democracy, equality.” He’s equally unrepentant about many other things, refusing to apologize “for teaching my children right from wrong”, “for my racial and ethnic heritage”, and “for believing that every man, woman and child are born with equal opportunity”.
Today schools have those white dry-erase boards, but if you remember chalkboards then you remember the sound of fingernails scratching down a chalkboard. Inside my head, these I-refuse-to-apologize statements make that same sound. Why?
First, no one’s asking these people to apologize. Is there a long line of people demanding an apology from you because you’re an attractive woman who looks good in a short skirt? Are there hordes of people clamoring for a retraction after you say “God bless America” or “Merry Christmas”? Are people texting you at all hours demanding that you show remorse for daring to call yourself a liberal? And is a massive swath of the populace outraged that you believe in America with liberty and justice for all? No! So, stop trying to enhance your position by wrapping yourself in false victimhood. In doing so, you not only detract from the quality of your argument but you do a disservice to real victims: people who suffer real harm and deserve a real apology.
Second, a bellicose refusal to apologize carries with it the not-so-subtle message that apologies are for weaklings. To the contrary, an acknowledgment of one’s mistake, an expression of sorrow to the victim of that mistake and a pledge to make things right are acts of real courage.
Third, an I-make-no-apology statement is merely a clumsy way of utilizing what’s known as the Straw Man Fallacy. Politicians just adore straw men! If you had to be in a fight, wouldn’t it be great to build your opponent yourself? You’d build him weak and you’d know where to land a punch so that he’d tumble over like, well, a straw man. So, when some guy says “I refuse to apologize for”, look carefully at what comes next. That’s the straw man. Some examples:
In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s libertarian manifesto, Hank Rearden refuses to apologize for his entrepreneurial success:
I refuse to accept as guilt … the fact that my work is of greater value than the work of my neighbors and that more men are willing to pay me. I refuse to apologize for my ability – I refuse to apologize for my success – I refuse to apologize for my money.
Hank, no one demands an apology from capitalists for their work ethic and the innovative ideas that make their businesses a success (and our lives more pleasant). But sometimes an apology is in order for damage a business does to the environment in producing its product, for working conditions in its factories, and for predatory or fraudulent marketing practices.
President Obama is currently the subject of much criticism for swapping an American POW for five Guantanamo terrorist commanders. His response:
I make absolutely no apologies for making sure we get back a young man to his parents and that the American people understand that this is somebody’s child and that we don’t condition whether or not we make the effort to try to get them back, …
Mr. President, everybody understands that a soldier “is somebody’s child” and no one opposes trying to “get back a young man to his parents”. What is up for debate is the wisdom of trading five hard-core, unrehabilitated terrorists for that soldier and for apparently violating the law that requires you to give Congress 30 days notice before you do so. (To be fair, the use of straw men is bipartisan. Mitt Romney’s 2010 book, written in the hope of taking the president’s job, bears the title of No Apology: Believe in America. Really, Mitt? Just who was demanding that you apologize for believing in America??)
So, please. Don’t be like the brightly-feathered chicken. No one is asking you to apologize for your plumage. You’re right; those feathers are gorgeous. But maybe you should consider apologizing for strutting around the barnyard like a pompous egotistical peacock. You’re a chicken.