Saying “sorry” does not always suffice

No matter where you are or who you are, in every culture there are rules of common decency that engender dignity and confidence. This past week, however, has been one of many hugely embarrassing public outbursts that defy this convention completely.

On the night of Sunday, Sept. 13 at the MTV Video Music Awards, Taylor Swift got a huge surprise. After beating out the likes of mega-successes Lady Gaga and Beyonce for the Best Female Video award, music artist Kanye West jumped up on stage during Swift’s acceptance speech, grabbed the microphone from her, and declared that Beyonce should have won the award for her “Single Ladies” video.

“Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time!” West tackily shouted, stealing the spotlight from Swift, only 19 years old, who stood to the side looking like she might cry at any moment. Boos rang up from the audience and cameras panned to Beyonce who looked absolutely dumbfounded by West’s outburst, before MTV cut to a commercial break. (It is important to note, however, that Beyonce on the other hand handled the situation with gracious class by allowing Swift to take her own stage time after Beyonce won the Best Video award).

Similarly, the previous day tennis star Serena Williams caused outrage when she walked toward a line judge, cursing and threatening the judge with physical injury for making a call. The threat went something like “I’m going to shove this ball down your throat,” which is unacceptable regardless of whether the call was actually good or bad.

Since the VMA incident, West has apologized at multiple venues, and Williams has also apologized. But apologies aren’t like magic erasers that somehow manage to make everything okay.

Of course, no one plans to break down in public or get riled up for some reason or another. While we all make mistakes and sometimes succumb to our lesser instincts, it’s not okay to just say “I’m sorry” repeatedly, ad nauseam, especially if the eventual outcome is just to repeat the offending act again, as is the case for Mr. West, who has a history of making uncouth outbursts at awards shows (whether he’s talking about being robbed of awards himself or flouncing in support of another).

Uttering the little word ‘sorry’ alone simply doesn’t cut it. Instead, deeds or some other show of sincerity, atonement, or at least having to face repercussions is necessary. With Serena Williams, on top of apologizing, she was forced to suffer penalties for her conduct. While it’s sad to see a great tennis player fall to such circumstances, it was deserved. Public figures are role models.

Then what about Kanye West?

We never seem to keep tabs on what happens after the apology. What is it that makes ‘sorry’ stick? I’m not trying to make light of apologies that are made truly and sincerely. We all have at some point made them and meant them, but to apologize repeatedly for the same wrong just goes to show how little those apologies sometimes actually mean. People need to learn to take responsibility for their actions – admit when we’re wrong and move on. We all hate the kind of narcissists who won’t admit to ever having erred, so we should try our best to avoid being like them. At the same time there’s no sense of culpability in our society, especially with us constantly demanding apologies (and nothing else) of our celebrities, politicians, and other public figures who have fallen from grace. If you can get away with doing wrong by simply saying ‘sorry’ afterwards, what’s to stop us?

Who knows, maybe West was truly apologetic when he apologized to Swift. Admittedly, West’s apology on Leno’s show the following evening seemed very sincere as he choked up when Leno asked him what his mother would have thought about his actions. West needs to take his own advice and reflect on what he’s done and what he needs to change about himself to make sure something like this never happens again. That kind of commitment is what makes a short ‘sorry’ real.

Joe Wilson, a South Carolina congressman, also made a crass presentation this week by shouting “You lie!” during President Obama’s health care speech to Congress. I’m loathe to admit it, but in this case, politics could learn a thing or two from the world of entertainment and sports. Despite having initially apologized for his outburst, only hours later, he proclaimed that he is “not sorry for fighting back against the dangerous policies of liberal Democrats.” This glaring act of disrespect will not deter Wilson from most likely drawing in big bucks for his reelection campaign. Unlike the other two cases of public rudeness, Wilson has suffered no penalties; there is no public humiliation and there has been no ramifications to his political career. I don’t endorse censorship, but such a gross infraction of manners ought to have gotten Wilson thrown out of the session.

The problem I have in the case with Joe Wilson isn’t with his message, his views, or his constituents. I have a huge problem with the way he delivered his message. Just like it’s never okay to hijack the spotlight from a deserving young star or to threaten a judge for doing his or her job, it is not alright to belittle the office of the president of the United States in a childish and petulant manner while the president is in the middle of addressing Congress. This should not be awarded or allowed to let slide.

Public tantrums almost never end well. While the act of releasing anger or expressing adrenaline-induced excitement in the form of vocal outbursts may feel good at the moment, points get lost when people realize that these are not the people they want to look up to. There’s something to be said about just being a plain ol’ nice person.