Who's Sorry Now?

Elizabeth's picture

cute puppy pictures Tiger Woods apologized and the world stopped so that everyone could watch. A friend of mine posted to her Facebook account: Tiger Woods does NOT owe me an apology, and he doesn't owe you one. Unless your name is Elin. Tiger felt otherwise. He apologized to friends, family, fans, sponsor, employees, and the parents of children who looked up to him as a role model (though not directly to the children apparently).

I did not watch the apology. I did not listen to it, nor did I read it afterwards. I did note that the New York Times had two full articles about it, though. That article noted that two of the major US TV networks interrupted their regular coverage to carry the apology live. It also intrigued me to read that the apology was delivered in person to an audience of only about 40 people. Forty is still too big a group for a really personal apology  but it is a much more intimate group than "the whole wide world" which is approximately the size of the audience watching and listening yesterday.

I understand that Woods was apologizing not only to his wife for the betrayal his sexual activities apparently represents. I understand that he was apologizing for having let down lots of people who believed in him not, apparently, because of his golf talent, but because of that talent plus a "squeaky clean" image that was part of his brand. What a shame that his sex life and the contents of his marriage should have to be part of his brand image. (And maybe what a shame that people have become "brands" in the first place.)

But the whole thing has got me thinking about the role of the public apology. The sociologist in me wants to know if the contemporary mainstream media apology is equivalent to the public punishment rituals of more traditional societies. Do they create solidarity via schadenfreude so that those of us watching experience a kind of recommitment to mainstream norms? (Or perhaps for some of us a solidarity in commitment to nonmainstream norms such that we would never find ourselves having to apologize like that in the first place?) In a society built on individualism rather than collectivity it does make a certain kind of sense that it would be the apology ("I'm sorry") and not the punishment (state action) that would be the center of such a ritual.

Or should we understand the public apology a form of therapy, like the 9th of the 12 steps in which you are supposed to make amends to those you wronged, but writ large the way everything about celebrities must be? And are there people who get an extra thrill from the mix of humility and recognition? (Given the degree of privacy achieved by Woods before the scandal I presume he is not really much of an exhibitionist.)

Is anyone out there working on a study of the 21st century mass media public apology? I think it's time for one!