As I type this, Mark Zuckerberg has just begun his second day of Congressional testimony. Like Donald Trump, who met Parkland survivors clutching notes saying, “I hear you,” in his tiny pink fingers, Zuck came armed with talking points that were helpfully captured by news photographers. His read, in part, “Respectfully, I reject that. Not who we are.”
“Not who we are” is a regular target of derision on SorryWatch, a web site devoted to analyzing apologies, and my side hustle, as the kids say, with my writer friend Susan McCarthy. “This is not who I am” is a square on the very first “Bad Apology Bingo” card I wrote back in 2013! Why do bad apologies so often include this phrase? Because it’s human nature to want to distance ourselves from our own wrongness. We want to excuse our behavior as something totally separate from us: It’s not me! It’s just a thing I did! But if you did something, it is who you are. You have to take responsibility and own it. Like Prospero, you’ve got to say, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”
A good apology fully inhabits the offense. The apologizer must state exactly what they did wrong (and not hide behind pallid phrases like “I’m sorry for what happened” or “I’m sorry for the hurt caused” or in Zuckerberg’s case, “I’m sorry for poor communication.”) Yes, it’s painful to name your sin. That’s what you signed up for. That’s what the people you’ve hurt need; we are entitled to metaphorical blood. We need you to squirm and SAY THE THING. “Poor communication” isn’t the problem, Zuck–it’s deliberately obfuscatory communication. Facebook has worked to insure that people don’t know what they’re giving away when they look at sites with FB open in another tab on their browser. The company repeatedly tells the public “you have control over what you share!” without adding, “But we’re tracking you all the time and across devices and selling data about you!” “Poor communication” and blaming others doesn’t encompass utterly failing to protect us from election-meddling and fake news.
After owning up to precisely what they did, a good apologizer has to acknowledge the impact of their actions. Zuckerberg hasn’t done that. He sticks to blaming firms like Cambridge Analytica. When asked for specifics on what Facebook itself has done, he kept assuring questioners that he’d have his team get back to them. (The weasel words “follow up with you” were used nearly a dozen times.)
A good apology has to explain why the offense won’t occur again. Again, bzzzzt. Zuckerberg has been apologizing almost nonstop for 14 years (“It’s pretty much impossible, I believe, to start a company in your dorm room…without making some mistakes,” he said this time, simultaneously making himself sound like a dewy young doe-eyed naif and reminding us of his genius). The Washington Post gave us a great online roundup of Zuck’s apology history, helpfully annotating all his apologies in orange and promises to change in blue. None give the gift of specificity. But unlike many celebs and politicians, Zuckerberg has no trouble saying the words, “I’m sorry.” He says them over and over, with the wide-eyed impassive vacuousness that has turned him into an alien-robot meme. (One example: A pic of Zuck awkwardly crouching and feeding a bottle to a baby cow, captioned, “I am Zuckerberg. Drink of this beef milk I have grabbed from the sustenance teats. Soon you shall be burgers. Glorious.”)
Writer Stephen Marche noted in The New Yorker, “There’s a certain look that Zuckerberg gets when he’s apologizing, one that’s particularly infuriating…It is a blankness that somehow conveys simply that he’s sad that things have turned out the way they have. His innocence is infuriating.” That’s precisely it. This free-floating, nebulous hangdog Eeyore sadface expression implies “There’s nothing to be done. This is how the world is.” Some have alleged that he is a dumbass evil bastard, but I think he’s serving up deliberate nebbishness. Unlike tough guys who are unwilling to use the words “I’m sorry,” he’ll repeat it ad nauseam as part of his Harmless Nice Jewish Boy persona. It’s performative. It means nothing.
A good apology has to explain why the offense won’t occur again. Zuck doesn’t go there. He just promises, “We’ll do better.” How? Don’t just perform penance. Give us concrete steps for how you’ll make things right. A good apology involves reparations – whether that’s dry-cleaning the shirt you’ve spilled wine on or ceasing to allow nefarious operators to scrape information about 87 million people for sinister purposes.
The Mishnah tells us that a good apology involves confessing your mistake (Zuckerberg confesses mistakes, but not the correct ones–“poor communication” and “letting other people do bad things because we weren’t vigilant enough” are not Facebook’s true sins), expressing sincere remorse, and resolving not to make the same mistake again (merely chanting “I’m sorry” for 14 years like the Ashamnu isn’t that). We’re supposed to do everything in our power to right the wrong and appease the people who we’ve hurt (Mishneh Torah 2:9), which Zuckerberg hasn’t even approximated. We’re told to act differently if the same situation happens again (Mishneh Torah 2:1) – again, not so much with the Zuckster. Finally, the Talmud quotes Rabbi Judah: “How is one to tell whether a penitent is genuine? When the penitent has the opportunity to commit the same sin once and once again and he refrains from committing it.” Ha. Zuckerberg has made no attempt at tikkun, repair, or teshuvah, returning to the right path. (Though it’s unclear whether a web site originally developed to rate teenage girls according to hotness was ever on the right path.)
Yesterday, Republican senator John Thune noted the 14-year (so far) duration of Zuckerberg’s everlasting apology tour and asked, “How is today’s apology different?” Exactly. How is this substance-free groveling different from all other substance-free groveling? As Democratic senator Catherine Cortez Masto pointed out, “Please stop apologizing and make the change.”
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.