Generation Y

I’d like to apologize, but I won’t

“Saturday Night Live” recently did a sketch that mocked Kanye West’s latest awards show-related apology, which came two and a half weeks after Kanye rose in protest at the Grammys when alt-rock legend Beck beat out R&B star Beyoncé for Album of the Year. The begrudgingly contrite tweet was funny in part because it came from Kanye—whose behavior arises from a place of such extreme self-seriousness that everything he does is funny—but also because of the stiltedly bland wording of his brief, effortful apology.

The full text: “I would like to publicly apologize to Beck, I’m sorry Beck.”

Even for Twitter, this is a bit terse—81 characters short of the 140-character limit. It also suffers from what some may perceive as the redundancy of its second clause (“I’m sorry”), which adds no real information to the initial repentant gesture of the first clause (“I would like to publicly apologize”), and from a suggestion of childlike literalism in the idea that, after stating that one would like to apologize for something, one must then actually say “I’m sorry.”

But if Kanye’s apology reads strange to us, and if we agree that it would have seemed more “normal” without the second clause, it begs a sort of interesting linguistic question: why do we believe that the phrase “I would like to apologize” alone represents an apology? The meaning of that sentence is clear, and it doesn’t constitute an admission of guilt or expression of regret. It merely states an intention—it’s a wish, a pledge. Without some follow-up plea for forgiveness or confession of wrongdoing—or even something as simple as an “I’m sorry”—the pledge technically remains unfulfilled, doesn’t it?

I think we can all agree that when I say “I’m going to run over to the grocery store for a gallon of milk,” I have not actually completed the act if all I’ve done is state that I’m going to do it. Saying “I’d love to visit Japan” is not the same thing as actually visiting Japan. Yet all the time we hear things like “I’d like to express my deepest sympathies to [X]” and “I just want to state my gratitude for [Y]”: desires that usually appear to go unrealized—especially in P.R. sound-bites, where the point is not really to convey gratitude or sympathy but only to show that the speaker is a gracious, compassionate, polite person (who nevertheless can’t be bothered to form a second sentence that doesn’t start with the word “I”).

When I hear these stand-alone declarations, I sometimes think of celebrity interviews wherein the questions typically are things like “Did you enjoy working with George Clooney?” For the actress, the “correct” answer to this is “Yes” or “No,” not an explanation of the film’s personal significance. The interviewer believes he’s asked the celebrity what the movie means to her, but in reality his question is one step removed from the subject he’s pursuing. And because this question is not nearly as much a question as it is a reformulated demand, like “Can you get me a cup of coffee?”), it always feels vaguely out of place to me in a Q&A. (Occasionally you do come across a question like “Can you talk a little about what this movie means to you, with regard to [A, B, and C]?”)

But I may be the one who’s getting too literal now. Just in case, I’ll give you two sample sentences, and you can decide which you prefer. The first sentence: “I have to tell you that I think your shirt is hideous.” The second sentence: “I have to tell you that I think your shirt is hideous: I think your shirt is hideous.”

From a Spockishly logical perspective, the second sentence makes perhaps more solid sense—the speaker announces an intention and then follows through on it. The first sentence is more like one of those meta-novels in which the main character is writing a novel of his own and, in the process of researching the story, becomes enmeshed in some dangerous plot whose components become the basis of the novel that he eventually writes, which bears the same title as the novel you hold in your hands as you read about this fictional novelist’s adventure. Is the book you’re reading supposed to be the book that the novelist-within-the-novel wrote, or is it only the story of how that fictional novelist came to write some similar but unseen work that happens to have the same title? In the first sentence, did I merely announce an uncontrollable urge to tell you that your shirt is hideous, or did my telling of that urge become the telling itself?

We can all probably agree that it’s the latter—the “second sentence” obviously is ridiculous, like a gift whose packaging is the same stuff as the gift itself. When the deed you intend to commit consists wholly of language (such as an “expression of sympathy”), then I suppose the deed may be contained within the language you use to announce your intention of committing the deed. Still, it may be a very poor expression of sympathy.

Kanye’s curt mea culpa is funny-sounding because it incidentally recalls a juvenile conception of repentance, which of course has nothing to do with actual repentance: to a small child, the magic phrase “I’m sorry” is to “apology” what the clear liquid that comes from your faucet is to “water”—it’s more like a physical object than an idea, and therefore is not transmitted within the sentence “I’d like to apologize.”

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