So, Imus has been dropped and the only real issue now seems to be how far he might fall. But there is a larger question at play here, one that touches on such far-ranging issues as the war, slavery, Ron Atkinson, Mike Tyson, George Allen and British hostages in Iran, to name but a few. Namely: what is the purpose and power of an apology? Why do some work and others not?
This is a particularly acute question for liberals. Conservatives are less likely to believe in rehabilitation (on this earth, anyway, although if you wait, there may be redemption on the other side). But the power to reform is at the heart of the liberal idea. The notion that people should not forever be defined by one mistake but ought to be allowed to pay their dues and be forgiven is why capital punishment is antithetical to the liberal credo.
We believe that murderers and rapists should, after a decent stretch in prison during which they have been re-educated and have shown repentance, be released into decent society. Why, then, should an off-the-cuff racist and sexist remark prompt some to call for the protagonist to be locked up and the key to be thrown away?
Here are what I believe to be some parameters and the reasons why, when relevant, they apply to Imus's case.
1 - How an apology is received depends primarily on what you are saying sorry for. Apologising for interrupting someone at a dinner party is of a different order to apologising for the premeditated murder of an entire family. A reasonable person would accept the first without much fuss; an apology for the second would likely not mean very much to the relatives of the deceased. This could well be Imus's biggest problem. His comments were so offensive that an apology simply is simply an inadequate salve for the pain.
2 - The nature of the apology must be unequivocal. Blair's expression of "regret" and "deep sorrow" for slavery is no more than a lawyerly get-out. Much like Fonzie's inability to ever quite say the word in Happy days, it makes him look ridiculous and callous. Moreover it pleases no one. Those who seek it insist he has not done enough; those who oppose it say he has done too much. (If you can't say sorry for slavery, what can you apologise for?) You're sorry or you're not. No one should apologise if they are not sorry (see 5). But if you are, then step up and spit it out.
3 - Whoever apologises must take responsibility for their actions. This was where the Republican Virginia senator, George Allen, went wrong after he labelled an Indian-American aide of his opponent a "macaca" (which can mean either monkey or be a racial slur). "I would never want to demean him as an individual," he said. "I do apologise if he's offended by that. That was no way the point." The aide was offended, but Allen put the responsibility for the offence on the target of his comments rather than on himself. Imus, on this score, did deliver a full apology.
4 - The quicker the apology, the less calculated it seems; the longer it takes to get an apology out, the more insincere it looks. Allen, once again, was a poster boy for this one. It took him an indecent amount of time to issue an acceptable apology, by which time it was too late because he was clearly issuing it to get himself out of trouble. Imus's apology was swift.
5 - The perpetrator must believe they've done something wrong. Mike Tyson is often slammed for showing no remorse for the rape of Desiree Washington. The trouble is, though he was convicted, he insists he didn't do it. That doesn't mean we have to believe him. But it is unreasonable to insist to ask people to apologise for things they insist they didn't do. Imus has conceded he did do something wrong.
6 - The apology must in some way lead to a change in behaviour. If someone apologises for interrupting you at a dinner party once, then fine. If they keep on interrupting you and keep on apologising, their apology becomes less and less meaningful each time. Anti-war activists keep pushing Hillary for an apology over her support for the war. She refuses to give one. But what would such an apology be worth anyway if she continued supporting the kind of policies that led to the war? Imus promises he will change his behaviour. One would have to take this on trust.
7 - The apology is more meaningful if it does not illustrate a pattern of behaviour that has been brought to the protagonist's attention before. Imus, for example, has been taken to task in the past over his bigoted comments. This was no off-the-cuff remark: it was his MO. He has been aware that he has caused offence before and chosen not to apologise. This time, he couldn't get away with it.
8 - Ignorance can be an explanation but never an excuse. Many's the time I've been called on using inappropriate language. Sometimes I knew I was using offensive slurs (calling people spastics and queers at school); other times I had no idea (referring to Native Americans as Red Indians during a trip to the US in my 20s). I have an aunt who until recently, thought "cunt" meant female rabbit. Go figure.
People have to be given the space to grow and learn and shouldn't be castigated just because they don't know that "coloured" is "African-American" now. But that only works if they have the humility to learn and to say when they're told: "Sorry, I had no idea." Imus does not claim ignorance.
9 - An apology is not part of some karmic trade-off where to say sorry leads to absolution. The apologiser still has to deal with the consequences of their actions. Their apology may go some way towards achieving that. But, as is the case with the murderer of an entire family in point 1, it may not. Imus's supporters, including Rudy Giuliani, claim that his apology should be the end of it. But a sincere apology cannot be part of a quid pro quo.
10 - An apology does not draw a line under the consequences of the offence. It simply recognizes that an offence has been committed. The family is still dead; the war still happened; the Rutgers team was still disparaged. Imus has said he wished he could turn back the clock. But the whole point of apologising is realising that, even though we all have to move on, the pain remains.