Why do people feel the need to accept or trivialise the necessity or importance of apologies that are not directed towards them?
I recently saw a tweet which said “Sometimes it’s best to let those who are directly affected by something SPEAK and not drown their voices out. They have a right to critique.” And not only did I think to myself: I absolutely agree, it immediately brought to mind the countless times I have witnessed people accepting apologies on behalf of affected parties.
Many of us can probably relate to situations where family or friends urge us to let it go or forgive and move on, when a person has wronged us, or where they push us to accept apologies from family members on the basis that: you can’t choose your family and they’re blood, so you need to forgive them.
You’re made to feel like an unreasonable person because you’re unaccepting of an apology from someone that has disparaged or hurt you and refusing to coddle them and serve them your forgiveness on a silver platter. Whether it be because the misdeed was so bad that you refuse to accept the apology or you’re not accepting until you actually see proof of changed behaviour to accommodate it, the truth of the matter is, you have no obligation to forgive and forget.
In more publicised situations, pertaining to the entertainment and online worlds, a person is called out for making a homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic or colourist remark or exposed for committing acts that are derogatory or offensive towards a particular (usually oppressed) group. They make a public apology and like herds of sheep, people flock to the comments to applaud them for apologising while basically telling the offended groups they have to accept the apology just for the fact that it’s been given or telling the perpetrators that they did not need to apologise.
Halle Berry was recently called out by the transgender community and allies alike after she appeared on a live interview on Instagram discussing her desire to take on a role as a transgender man in a film.
She exhibited tone deafness by considering this role as trans actors are “constantly denied opportunities to represent their own lives” and tell their stories. Berry misgendering the character as “a woman” and representing a transgender man’s story as a “female story” was also harmful as doing this only serves the purpose of vilifying who a trans person is while denouncing their existence and experiences, whether she intended to do so or not.
“By speaking over people, especially those who have been marginalised, you’re taking away their freedom to express and own their feelings.”
Realising her faults, she issued a public statement on twitter apologising for her remarks and admitting that she “should not have considered” the role. She however failed to apologise for misgendering the character in the film. Her apology also set off comments from cisgendered people who were very adamant in expressing that she didn’t need to apologise at all.
The sad reality is that we see comments like this all the time, and of course, none of these commenters ever fall into the groups of people who are directly affected by offensive remarks or actions. In response to the actress’ comments, a transgender man noted the fact that people other than trans men were accepting of Halle Berry’s apology. By speaking over people, especially those who have been marginalised, you’re taking away their freedom to express and own their feelings.
Even more harrowing are situations where a perpetrator of sexual assault or rape pens a public apology expressing regret for their actions and groups of once again, unaffected people chime in with: well they’ve apologised and admitted their faults so let’s stop attacking them and move on.
Last month, singer and songwriter, Ray BLK shared that she was sexually assaulted by rapper, Ambush Buzzworl at a YouTube event in February. He initially sent her private voice notes apologising for assaulting her and telling her to let the matter go. Later on, he shared a public apology on social media stating that he never intended to “make her feel violated or uncomfortable” but also backtracked, claiming that he “never grabbed her body” and only “brushed her with [his] finger.”
While many people supported her, many others came to the rapper’s defense reiterating that he had already apologised a few times, so there was no need for this public apology, and stating that she should have openly spoken about it when it happened and she was just “chasing clout”.
“The public’s acceptance of apologies from sexual abusers, on behalf of the survivor, suggests that anyone can usurp the power of absolving an abuser’s crimes, which takes even more power away from the survivor and further harms them.”
A similar case occurred back in 2017 when Tokunbo ‘TBoss’ Idowu was sexually assaulted while she was asleep in the Big Brother Nigeria house by another housemate, Kemen Ekerette. He shared an apology after he was disqualified from the game show, asking for TBoss’ forgiveness “as well as all the women in Africa who perceived [his] action as [a] violation or sexual offence.”
By apologising for how we “perceived” his actions while trying to absolve himself by stating that “reality is different from perception”, he indeed failed to actually apologise for sexually assaulting TBoss. And even with this insufficient apology, reminiscent to that of Ambush Buzzworl’s, people came online to defend him and even accept the apology, to no real surprise.
With comments like: “Kemen apologised, what else do you want” and “He said sorry, let’s get over it”, he was enabled and coddled to the point where TBoss was criticised for not immediately coming out to express her acceptance of his so-called apology. He also suffered no real or grave consequences for his vile actions to the point where he is thriving as a successful and highly praised fitness trainer till date.
The public’s acceptance of apologies from sexual abusers, on behalf of the survivor, is considerably harmful as it perpetuates the notion that regardless of the survivor’s traumatic experiences and the abuser’s offences, anyone can be easily absolved of their misdeeds with a single apology. It also suggests that anyone can usurp the power of absolving an abuser’s crimes, which takes even more power away from the survivor and further harms them.
Going even further, it normalises the acceptance of a lack of punishment for abusers which is unfortunately prevalent in society as survivors of sexual assault and rape rarely get the justice they deserve. This is evidenced by the fact that only 65 rape convictions were made between 1973 and 2019 in Nigeria.
“Being empathetic grants you the discernment to sit back and realise that an apology not intended for you is never yours to accept.”
In Ray BLK’s case, her power to speak out and express her feelings about the incident ran the risk of being completely taken from her by commenters who accepted Ambush’s apology – and with it, his version of events, without question. It highlighted the public’s eagerness to accept apologies intended for others, as well as their willingness to view the victim’s account as an exaggeration of the truth, therefore rendering the issue as nothing more than a minor misunderstanding.
There’s no doubt that it is undeniably easier for an unaffected party to accept an apology but I think the key issue here is a lack of empathy. Being empathetic not only assists you in putting yourself in another person’s shoes in order to better understand their plight, it also grants you the discernment to sit back and realise that an apology not intended for you is never yours to accept and by taking away the voices of the oppressed, you’re contributing to their oppression. You’re affirming the dangerous belief that they have no right to speak on or criticise actions or remarks that directly affect them. You’re taking away their agency to make choices and decisions that directly impact their lives and who they are.
It is, and I can’t stress this enough, no one’s place to tell people who have been harmed by another’s actions or remarks to just forgive and forget because an offender has apologised and because they would do so if they were in the recipient’s situation or because they simply feel like it’s something that needs to be done for the greater good. Moreso, no one has the right to trivialise a person’s feelings or reactions resulting from these same harmful remarks or actions. You lose absolutely nothing by giving people the space to react to situations that directly affect them without chiming in to shut their voices out.