If you’ve paid even vague attention to the news recently – or even just social media – you may have been struck by the seemingly unending tidal wave of men being called out for assault, harassment and generally awful behavior. This is inherently a good thing; people who’ve been coasting along while having gotten away with heinous acts are increasingly being held accountable for what they’ve done. We, as a society, are finally waking up to the fact that so much of what we thought of as just “business as usual” is, in fact, fucking horrible.
And there are more people waking up every day with the realization that they weren’t so different from the Weinsteins, the Taibis, the Ratners. Yeah, they may never have locked the door and refused to let a woman out until she blew them, but they weren’t that far off either. They may have taken advantage of those “blurred lines” or let the liquor do the persuading. They were the shitty edgelord who loved to taunt women with raunchy, offensive “jokes” and terrorized marginalized people because of the lolz.
Some were the guy at the club who played grabass or at the party who thought it was funny to rub his boner against someone’s leg. Others were the “hey, what’s a casual boob-grab between friends, look everyone else is laughing,” bro. Boundaries were things that happened to other people because hey, all’s fair when it comes to getting your dick wet, right?
Over time, though, they’ve grown. They’ve changed. But at the same time, they’ve also never faced the consequences of their actions. They’ve skated along – like so many others have – because that was how life was. And now, as victims are feeling increasingly empowered to speak up against the harassment and assaults and crimes they’ve endured… these guys are starting to wake up to the magnitude of what they have done.
Of course, this is a deeply personal topic for me. After all: part of the Doctor NerdLove branding and story is that I used to be a turbo-douche and did a lot of shitty things in my time. I’ve learned – and I’m still learning – but that doesn’t change things. And while you can’t change your past, you can change your future.
And then the question becomes: what do you do now when you realize just how awful you were? How do you make amends or find redemption after having been such an asshole for so long?
The Difficulty In Finding Redemption (And Why It’s Important)
One of the hardest things that someone can do is face up to their own fuck-ups. None of us like to think about the damage we can do – and may have done – to others. We are all the heroes of our own stories after all; it’s very hard to look around and realize that while you might be the hero in yours, you may well have been the villain in someone else’s.
That realization is difficult. It utterly fucks with your idea of who you are and what the “real” villains are. It’s all too easy to rationalize it away because you “know” what an abuser looks like, or how a rapist acts. You’re not like them. You know you’re just giving compliments, not harassing someone. You’ve just encouraged them to have one more beer, not dragged them behind the dumpster. Yeah, you were little too rowdy with that drunk girl but hey, she got drunk, what about personal responsibility?
What’s even harder is realizing that we can’t undo the things we’ve done. That there is no Ctrl-Z command that can make it unhappen. Acknowledging that you fucked up means recognizing that you have to live with the fact that you did these things. They are part of the permanent record of your life.
That’s hard to live with – especially when that’s not who you are any more. And God knows that there will be people who will make it their mission to remind you of how you used to be. But that makes trying to find redemption all the more important. While I dislike the smugness behind the saying, every saint does has a past. None of us are born “woke”, for lack of a better term. We all grow up mired in a culture that teaches us, tacitly and explicitly, that harassment, coercion and objectification are ok and we rarely – if ever – get any sort of meaningful education on consent. In many ways, we as a culture set ourselves up for failure.
When we treat life as a dividing line between the Pure and the Problematic, it creates a disincentive to actually engage with one’s own sins. Why bother trying to grow and improve, when your past will only be held against you?
Well, the reason is that while you may not be able to undo the things you did, you can make things better overall. You can be part of what changes the culture we live in. And in doing so, you may be what stops another person from making the mistakes you made.
But before you can seek redemption, you have to accept responsibility.
And that starts with acknowledging what you’ve done.
Don’t Dodge The Responsibility
One of the things that many people do wrong when they’re facing down what they’ve done is that they try to excuse themselves. Devin Faraci, for example, blamed much of his behavior on his alcoholism. After allegations of harassment surfaced, Dustin Hoffman issued an apology, saying “I have the utmost respect for women and feel terrible that anything I might have done could have put her in an uncomfortable situation. I am sorry. It is not reflective of who I am.”
Except… it clearly was and is. But Hoffman’s statement is a prime indicator of just why addressing these issues can be so difficult.
All of us have a firm idea of who we are, in our heads. We know, to our core, that we’re good people. We’ve got our moral center and we know that clear line between right and wrong. And that’s the problem. Not that clear line, but the idea of who we are. See, because we have that mental image of ourselves, we really don’t like confronting the idea that we’re wrong. We infinitely prefer to think that there’s some other person – someone who just happens to wear our skin on occasion – that does these things. Not us. We’re good.
Take Hoffman’s comment that “this isn’t reflective of who I am”. He’s demonstrably wrong because, well, he did it. He made skin-crawling-ly bad jokes about soft-boiled clitorises to a 17 year old when he wasn’t grabbing her ass. Yeah, he had a drug problem. But unless those drugs were sold to him by one Dr. H. Jeckyll, they didn’t turn him into a completely different person. He could very well have been tripping balls and having conversations with cartoon elephants… but it was still Dustin Hoffman, just with his “this is a really bad idea” filter turned off.
It’s the same with alcoholism or other addictions. Yeah, they’re a disease… but they don’t make you into someone you’re not. It may impair your decision-making… but it’s not introducing an alien host into your system that takes control of your body and brain. It’s still you.
Other times people will try to give reasons as to why they did what they did. And while you may legitimately want people to understand where your head was (or wasn’t) at when you fucked up, it really doesn’t help. Even if you have the best of intentions, what other people are going to hear is “this is why you aren’t allowed to be that mad at me.” And, to be perfectly blunt, most people are going to recognize this for the bullshit that it is.
Motherfucker, I called you out to your face IN MARCH about shit you did almost a decade ago. Miss me with this shit ass “I didn’t know” https://t.co/kXGk9Q39Rp
— Donna Dickens (@MildlyAmused) November 4, 2017
The fact of the matter is, the people you hurt aren’t going to care why you did it. The motivations or situations that led to your fuck up are going to mean less than a dry fart compared to what you actually did. And, frankly, explaining things away or trying to say that “this isn’t who I am” is almost always about trying to lessen – or avoid – the consequences of your actions.
And the fact of the matter is: you can’t avoid them. You fucked up. You have to face up to it and accept that this is part of the warp and weft of your life. It’s on your permanent record. Accepting responsibility means accepting this too. Maybe it won’t affect you in any meaningful way. That clearly happens for many people. Maybe it will be part of the Wikipedia entry of your life – that happens too. What you need to do is face it, accept it and do what it takes to grow past it and do better. If you don’t want your mistakes to be your sole defining feature, then you need to live your life in such a way that people see it was a glitch that you grew past, not something that is a core to who you are.
And the first step:
Give a Real Apology
One of the first steps of seeking redemption is that you have to take responsibility. Often this means that you have to actually apologize for what you’ve done – especially if you’ve been called out. However, this is one of the areas where people tend to fall down. In fact, as paradoxical as it may seem, many apologies are signs that someone isn’t actually sorry.
On the one hand, we have the “I’m sorry I got busted” apology. These are typified by use of the passive voice – the “I’m sorry that people were hurt”, the “mistakes were made” apology. When someone says things like “people were hurt by…”, they’re putting distance between their actions and themselves. They’re attempting to diminish their own responsibility by phrasing things in such a way that it minimizes their personal involvement and, in many cases, puts blame on the people that are being apologized to. “I’m sorry you were offended” is a classic example; it implies that the fault ultimately lies in the people who took offense, not that the person apologizing was offensive.
On the other hand, there’s the excessive apology, the “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa”. This sort of apology is performative, a display of just how very sorry someone is. They are so very sorry in fact, that they can’t stop talking about how sorry they are. They’re awful, scum, the worst. They can’t believe that you’re even willing to breathe the same air as them. Also did you know that they’re incredibly sorry?
As much as the passive apology is about refusing to actually take responsibility, the “mea maxima culpa” is all about being seen taking responsibility… with emphasis on “being seen”. In making such a performance, they’re centering the conversation on their repentance, not on acknowledgement of what they’ve done. In making such a fuss, they’re attempting to change the narrative. It’s a way of both covering their ass and pressuring their victims to play along. After all, how heartless can you be to not forgive someone who’s just so sorry? In being so excessive in their repentance, they hope to avoid the consequences of their actions. They’re so miserable, so haven’t they been punished enough?
Many will use this sort of apology as a way to try to leap out in front of an impending scandal. Not surprisingly, the excessive apology is often used by people who want to create a redemption narrative. They want cookies and head pats and for everyone to agree that they’ve changed. In reality: they almost never have.
If you want to take responsibility and work towards redemption, then you need to apologize the right way.
First is to recognize that apologies are best done in private, to the person or people you’ve hurt. That means talking to them, directly, not making grand public declarations on Facebook or Twitter. You’re showing remorse, not making a PR statement to cover your ass. Yes, we’re seeing high-profile, very public apologies. These are coming from celebrities and public figures being asked for comment or trying to deal with a scandal. Unless you’re appearing in the Los Angeles Times on the regular, your apology is for you and the person you’re apologizing to.
Here’s what makes an effective, sincere apology:
- Acknowledge what you’ve done wrong – Redemption starts with awareness of what you are seeking redemption for. Many people who make public apologies are clearly doing so to make people shut up. It’s clear that they either don’t know – or don’t care – how they’ve transgressed. If you want to make things better, you need to show that you understand where you fucked up. It’s worth noting: sometimes you may not remember having done this. This happens. Even so: acknowledge it directly. Say “I honestly don’t remember this, but I believe you when you say I did it.” Not remembering isn’t an excuse.
- Show that you understand why it was wrong – The next part of apologizing is acknowledging why what you did was harmful. In showing that you understand how your actions affected others, you’re showing that you’re paying attention to – and prioritizing – how others feel. In understanding how your actions made others feel, you are setting yourself up to learn how to avoid doing this again in the future… and how you might make things right, if you can.
- Explain what you will do now – This is important. What are you going to do, now that you’ve recognized that you fucked up? Specifically, what are the positive, proactive things that you will do to make things right, not the things that you’ll avoid doing in the future? Anyone can not do something. You need to show that you understand what you should be doing. Please note that this is very different from “how will I change” – which we’ll get to in a moment.
- Step Back – You’ve apologized. And now that you have, it’s time to be quiet. See, one of the reasons why so many people view apologies with suspicion is that people push them too far. The person apologizing begs for forgiveness. They push for acknowledgement and acceptance. They, in short, undo everything they just said because they’re continuing to badger at others. It becomes a way of centering the apology on themselves, of making demands of others instead of showing sincere repentance. You’ve said your peace and, quite frankly, nobody is obligated to accept your apology. All you can do is offer it and take what’s coming to you – one way or another.
There’s also the question of when to apologize. Ideally, you want to do so immediately. If someone comes to you and tells you that you’ve made them uncomfortable or pushed their boundaries? That is the time to believe them and to apologize. Sometimes the time between what you’re apologizing for and the recognition of the need to apologize can be vast. In those cases, it’s best to do so once you realize what you’ve done.
However, there are times when apologies simply aren’t a good idea.
Confused? Well, it’s all about the next step.
What Are You Doing To Make Things Better (And How Are You Avoiding Making Things Worse)?
Once you’ve apologized, you want to take concrete steps to make amends. As I said, unless you have a time machine, you can’t make what you’ve done not have happened. But if you truly want to redeem yourself, then you need to do what you can to repair the damage you’ve caused – even if you can’t do so directly.
In fact, trying to do so directly might actually make things worse. While there’s an understandable desire to make amends specifically to the people you’ve hurt, sometimes doing so will actually do far more harm than good. Many people will have put a lot of time and effort into trying to move past whatever it is that you’ve done. Your showing back up in their lives again – even if it’s just to apologize to them – can end up tearing open old wounds. You would make them relive old hurts, all over again. This can be especially galling if it feels like you’re showing up in order to beg for forgiveness for your personal journey. You may have the best of intentions, but sometimes the potential for unintentional, secondary harm is too great.
Sometimes the best thing you can do for someone you’ve wronged is to stay away.
And now we pause for a moment of adorableness to recharge…
While you may not be able to make amends directly, you can and should do what you can to make things better for others – and for society as a whole.
Start with educating yourself. Learn everything you can about what you did and how it affects people so that you can make things better. Can you find charities or causes that you can contribute to that are related to what you’ve done? Find opportunities to volunteer your time and effort – as well as your money – to organizations that can help others who’ve been on the receiving end of actions like yours. Intercede for others, be a voice and an advocate for marginalized people or people who would be affected by others doing what you had done. Educate others if you can, too. If you understand the human cost to your mistakes, then try to be the person who can help others not create more misery. Sometimes it means counseling an individual. Other times it means coming forward at an appropriate moment to tell your story.
Find ways that you can learn how to be a better person – especially if it means understanding and addressing the issues that contributed to your fuckup. It may be a cliche, but going to rehab for substance abuse is an important part of moving forward and growing past what you’ve done.
Don’t, however, assume that rehab is your “get out of trouble free” card. You’re looking to be better, not avoid being accountable for your actions. Far, far too many people have tried to use the Going To Rehab Tango as the kick-off event to their apology and comeback tour. It’s become such a cynical move that Harvey Weinstein did less than a week of rehab for his “sex addiction” before claiming to be cured.
And there’s one more thing you need to understand…
Forgiveness And Second Chances are Earned, Not Given (And You May Not Get Them)
You may have noticed that I’ve been very carefully talking about seeking redemption, not forgiveness. That’s because, frankly, you might not get it. The people you have hurt are under no obligation to forgive you. The cold hard truth of the matter is that sometimes no amount of change will be enough. Some injuries will be too grave. The wounds may be too deep. The window in which you could have made things better will have passed. They may have moved on. They may have healed. But they may never feel like they can or want to forgive you.
That’s something you’re just going to have to live with.
The same is true of second chances. No matter how much work you put in, some people may simply never trust you again. It’s a cold truth that many people have used the language of redemption to try to skip past the consequences of their actions. Some, notably Hugo Schwyzer among others, used their redemption narrative1 as a selling point. That, in turn, gave them entry into a community that they could then victimize.
Other times, the second chances came at the expense of their victims. Many times, people have ignored the interests of the people who have been hurt in favor of protecting and enabling bad actors and giving them chance after chance – often leading to more pain and more misery.
If you’re truly interested in redemption, then that can’t be you. Forgiveness and second chances are the prerogative of the victims. It’s up to them whether forgiveness can be granted and under what conditions someone might earn a second chance. And while it may not seem fair to you… the system as it currently exists is even less fair to the victims.
If you’re truly seeking to find redemption and make amends, then that’s a system you’re going to have to fight to change. You may never get to benefit from those changes. But by doing better, by becoming better, you can help fix things and make the world better for others.
And that will be enough.
- And again, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that “I was horrible but I’ve changed” was part of my story [↩]