There has been a lot of apologising of late. It’s not just Nick Clegg who has been pulling muppet faces of regret. From Boris Johnson, David Cameron and Kelvin McKenzie apologising for the reaction after Hillsborough, to the senate nominee, Todd Adkin for “Using the wrong words in the wrong way” when not understanding the meaning of rape, to the Chief Whip for verbally abusing a police officer in Downing Street. Andrew Marr and Kristen Stewart have publically apologized for indiscretions and Oscar Pistorius for accusing his rival Alan Oliveira of cheating.
Apologizing expresses regret, but the reasons for regret are varied and are not necessarily repentant. Todd Akin may regret his words, but he has not taken back his statement which claimed that women could not get pregnant when the victims of “legitmate” rape. He is certainly not sorry enough to quit, despite his shocking lack of empathy and understanding of human biology. Kristen Stewart is sorry that she hurt those closest to her, but making a public statement to this effect does not dispel the feeling that she would be far less sorry if she had not been caught. Oscar Pistorius apologized only for the timing of his outburst and not for the accusation.
If some of these apologies appear false it may be because studies have suggested that observers are more critical about an insincere apology than the person they are intended for. When an apology is made publicly we think we can detect any small indication of insincerity. This is only based on one set of studies conducted by Risen and Gilovich in 2007, but would explain why we are more likely to accept an apology from a partner or work colleague, (maybe it’s flattery or the desire to come across as a forgiving person), but less able to forgive a wrong done to someone close to us.
Part of me feels sorry for Nick Clegg. I’m reminded of the nickname that Chris Huhne’s office came up with during the Liberal Democrat leadership contest – Calamity Clegg. He’s like a small puppy running around in circles for positive attention, but he just can’t help weeing on the carpet.
Clegg may well be sorry for making a pledge he couldn’t keep, although likely more sorry that it has damaged his political career rather than sorry for the implications for students. Although the timing of the apology, just before his party conference, can be viewed cynically, he must regret not thinking through the reality of the situation at the time; that he was unlikely to get into power outside of a coalition and both Labour and the Tories were not against tuition fee rises. It all rather smacks of a lack of forethought. The question is, do we need a senior polititian who, at best, induces pity and comparisons to incontinent dogs? For whom the best thing I can think to say of him is that he does a Beaker impression which rivals my own? I suspect not.