The Humiliating Art of the Woke Apology


By RICH LOWRY February 8, 2021 6:30


There is one factor that undergirds every aspect of these confessions — fear.

When people look back at our current era of woke intolerance, perhaps the most disturbing artifact will be reporter Donald McNeil’s apology upon his ouster from the New York Times.

The reason for his abject self-abasement is a bit of a mystery. He didn’t grovel to save his job — he was getting fired regardless. Perhaps he felt he needed to make a fulsome apology with an eye to future job prospects, or maybe he believed every word.

Regardless, this sort of self-accusation is not normal . . . except for in totalitarian states and in contemporary America.

The McNeil note to Times staff follows the pattern of other such apologies over the last year. We are a long way from the rote “I’m sorry if I offended anyone” apologies of yore, and a long way from “I wish in retrospect I had put that differently” apologies that might make sense, if warranted.

A routine feature of over-the-top apologies is the vast gap between the alleged offense and the depths of the confessions of wrongdoing. The tone and content of many contemporary apologies might be appropriate if, say, Aaron Burr were expressing regret for shooting Alexander Hamilton, or if Andrew Jackson were coming to terms with the enormity of the Trail of Tears.

Instead, we are talking about peccadilloes or non-offenses like McNeil’s using an offensive racial term in a conversation with students after one of them asked whether he thought it was right for a classmate to be punished for using the term as a twelve-year-old.

There is definitely an art to humiliating woke apologies, common patterns that appear across these attempts to appease the gods of taking offense.

Extreme Self-Accusation

In an astonishingly far-reaching apology for the offense of having written in support of college football, Ohio State University professor Matthew Mayhew wrote, “I was wrong. And even worse, I was uninformed, ignorant and harm inducing.”

Moreover, according to Mayhew: “To consider the possible hurt I have played a role in, the scores of others whose pain I didn’t fully see, aches inside me — a feeling different and deeper than the tears and emotions I’ve experienced being caught in an ignorant racist moment.”

A Sweeping Statement of Harm

It’s never a handful of people who are offended but entire institutions and categories of people, evidently always rocked to their cores.

Donald McNeil, whose work on the coronavirus has gained renown during the pandemic, made it sound as though science coverage at the Times, and perhaps the paper itself, would be hard-pressed to recover from his innocent use of the n-word:


“My lapse of judgment has hurt my colleagues in Science, the hundreds of people who trusted me to work with them closely during this pandemic, the team at ‘The Daily’ that turned to me during this frightening year, and the whole institution, which put its confidence in me and expected better.

“So for offending my colleagues — and for anything I’ve done to hurt The Times, which is an institution I love and whose mission I believe in and try to serve — I am sorry. I let you all down.”

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees criticized kneeling last year, then quickly buckled under the resulting criticism. “I would like to apologize to my friends, teammates, the City of New Orleans, the black community, NFL community and anyone I hurt with my comments yesterday,” he said, leaving no one out. “In speaking with some of you, it breaks my heart to know the pain I have caused.”

The Poetry Foundation made a fairly typical statement of support for racial justice after the killing of George Floyd and then, when critics wrote a letter of condemnation for the supposed offenses embedded in the statement, the Foundation apologized — to pretty much everyone imaginable.

“To our community of contributors, subscribers, partners, and visitors which includes,” it noted, “but is not limited to, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Middle Eastern, Asian, trans, non-binary, and queer people, undocumented and other immigrants, people with disabilities, and those struggling financially: we apologize for our silence in the face of crisis amid the call to dismantle institutional racism.”

The Berklee College of Music in Boston said after letting the police use its restrooms following George Floyd protests, “We understand that many members of our community feel betrayed. We are deeply sorry for the impact this had on our community and for perpetuating feelings of oppression, silencing, and marginalization. We will make a more concerted effort to consider the effects of our actions.”

The OSU professor Mayhew wrote, “I hate the fact that I have hurt my colleagues at Ohio State and the field of higher education, especially Black scholars whose careers have been spent studying Black lives. I am sorry for ignoring your scholarship. I hate that I have let down my Black friends and friends of color, whom I love.”

All of this, remember, for an article praising college football.

A Dawning Awareness of the Level of Offense

These apologies are little morality tales, where the offender realizes the error of not realizing how offensive he was.

“Originally,” McNeil wrote, “I thought the context in which I used this ugly word could be defended. I now realize that it cannot. It is deeply offensive and hurtful.”

The reporter added, “The fact that I even thought I could defend it itself showed extraordinarily bad judgement. For that I apologize.”

Brees realized that his comments “lacked awareness and any type of compassion or empathy. Instead, those words have become divisive and hurtful and have misled people into believing that somehow I am an enemy.”

Roman said she needed to learn the difference between being unfiltered and honest and uneducated and flippant: “I’m deeply sorry that my learning came at Chrissy and Marie’s expense.”

A Confession (Of Course) of Privilege

If there’s any upside to the original offense, according to these apologies, it’s the offenders realizing how shot through with “privilege” they are.

The Poetry Foundation said, “We acknowledge that we are predominantly white, and occupy other privileged identities.”

Roman confessed, “I’m a white woman who has and will continue to benefit from white privilege and I recognize that makes what I said even more inexcusable and hurtful. The fact that it didn’t occur to me that I had singled out two Asian women is one hundred percent a function of my privilege (being blind to racial insensitivities is a discriminatory luxury).”

Gratitude for Being Tutored by the More Enlightened

All the learning cited in these apologies wouldn’t have occurred without the instruction of the truly woke, who are accordingly due the greatest appreciation.

In an apology upon leaving the company for an article he wrote in 1987 opposing women in combat, then-Boeing executive Niel Golightly said the article was “painful because it is wrong. Painful because it is offensive to women. Painful because it reminds me of the sharp and embarrassing education the uninformed and unformed ‘me’ of that time received as soon as the piece appeared.”

The Poetry Foundation thanked those who slammed it: “We wish to express our deep gratitude and reverence to the authors of the community letter, to every person who signed in support, and to those who have spoken up in the past. Through our acceptance of institutional silence to questions and concerns raised, we have let you down.”

Roman professed herself “grateful to those who have already begun having difficult, important conversations with me in private.”

And, naturally, Mayhew thanked most fulsomely those who convinced him of his hidden racism: “I am immeasurably grateful to the grace extended by [several fellow academics] and for their willingness to work with me on these issues. I know they are taking a risk by partnering with me on this pathway. I know that they are carrying a burden by even taking any time with me. I want to thank them.”

There is one factor that undergirds every aspect of these apologies — it is fear, fear of the cultural power of the accusers, of their ability to ruin careers, reputations, and lives. These kinds of confessions aren’t wrung from the accused under threat of torture or exile. But they are in some real sense coerced, which is why they ring so false and are so alarming in a free society.