I remember one of the first times I heard, "I'm sorry." I must have been in first grade when my teacher was telling us that we need to say that phrase when we've offended or hurt someone.
Around that same time, I remember tripping and breaking a dish on the kitchen floor. I immediately apologized, but my father spanked me anyway. He kept saying, "I'm sorry too!" and giggling with each lash of the belt. For many years after that, whenever I would screw up and apologize to him, he'd say, "I'm sorry" with every slap or spank. I gave up saying it to him not just because I wasn't sorry any longer but because I no longer cared how he felt.
As I grew up, I became accustomed to immediately hearing "I'm sorry" from someone whenever I expressed pain or offense. Those words were so automatic and monotone. In my 20s, I once asked my ex, who kept apologizing nonstop during a fight, what he was sorry for. He had no answer. When my best friend of 15 years and I split, she wouldn't stop apologizing either. I asked her why she was sorry. "I don't know. I just want us to be friends again. Does it matter? I'm sorry."
That phrase was all over the television too. Kobe Bryant, President Clinton, Ted Haggard, Tony Hayward, Mark Sanford, Amy Pascal, Members of Congress, Paula Deen, Mel Gibson, and other countless celebrities. The apologies ranged from "I'm sorry that/if anyone was offended..." to melodramatic self-flagellation to "...my words were taken out of context..." to everything in between.
What do they all have in common? They're all from people caught with their pants down who are begging for forgiveness because they were caught in the public eye doing or saying something unseemly. (Sure you could argue that they were genuine apologies, but how many of those "apologetic" people were repeat offenders? How many of them just stopped giving a fuck like Jimmy Swaggart and continued being an asshole?)
Funny thing is when you say something shitty, it doesn't matter if it's in or out of context. It's still a shitty thing to say. If you're truly sorry, then you don't have to put a disclaimer about "if" or "that" people were offended. You're trying to manage your apology only to people who were offended and if everyone else is silent, they must not care, right? Ugh no. Here's what started out as an apology and then turned into painful, self-serving groveling.
What brings me here today is my favorite type of "apology" that really isn't one. Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal isn't sorry the CIA tortured people for many years in the most barbaric way. It looks like he's sorry that Vice President Dick Cheney is getting a lot of grief when Stephens thinks Cheney is nothing more than a misunderstood action hero.
I give up. I've been on this planet for over 3.5 decades, and I've come to loathe the phrase "I'm sorry" because those empty words have been bastardized, misused, wrapped in sarcasm, incorporated into insults, and warped far beyond their original meaning that I'm desensitized when I hear them. "I'm sorry" is now used when the offender wants someone else's feelings and pain to get out of the offender's line of sight because it makes him uncomfortable.
Even if I did hear what's intended to be a sincere apology, I'm not sure I'd ever believe it. At some point, "I'm sorry" becomes a predictable, trite phrase and nothing more.