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How not to apologize (I'm talking to you, Lars von Trier)

May 18, 2011 |  4:25 pm

Lars von Trier, Cannes, Hitler, Jews, NaziCount on provocative Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier to kick up a controversy even when his movies don't. Steven Zeitchik reports on The Times' 24 Frames blog that Von Trier made a disastrous attempt at humor involving Nazis and Jews at this year's Cannes Film Festival. That's a high-wire-without-a-net subject for even a professional comedian, let alone a notoriously serious filmmaker speaking in a language that's not his first. 

I'll leave it to others to point out why it's not a good idea to express support for Adolf Hitler. ("He's not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him, and I sympathize with him a little bit," Von Trier said, according to Zeitchik's account. He added, thankfully, "But come on, I'm not for the Second World War, and I'm not against Jews.") I'd just like to express my exasperation at Von Trier's apology.

Zeitchik reports that Von Trier's publicists issued the following statement, attributed to the filmmaker: “If I have hurt someone by the words I said at the press conference, I sincerely apologize. I am not anti-Semitic or racially prejudiced in any way, nor am I a Nazi." Note the strong use of the declarative -- "I am not anti-Semitic or racially prejudiced in any way, nor am I a Nazi." Compare that to the weak opening: "If I have hurt someone by the words I said...."

The "if" clause has become boilerplate language in the apologies issued -- not actually spoken, just issued -- by public figures. It's not an expression of contrition. It's a conditional "excuse me" to anyone who, in the minds of the non-apologizer, overreacts to his or her innocent actions. 

Such a construction is just another way of saying, "Get over it. Anyone who was offended by what I said is just too sensitive."

I'd like to suggest a new approach. It's probably less honest because, frankly, most of the people who "issue" these apologies do so only because their business people tell them to. Yet it would actually pass for an apology. Start by saying something that's the linguistic equivalent of "I messed up." Then point out that the action or words, on their face, were wrong, and why. Then say, "I know that some people were offended by this, and I'd like to apologize to them." Or something to that effect.

A good example of the wrong and right ways to apologize come from Kobe Bryant, whose anti-gay slur during a game last month was caught on cable TV. Bryant's first response fell into the category of arguing that no offense should have been taken. His second was more straightforward: "The comment that I made, even though it wasn't meant in the way it was perceived to be, is nonetheless wrong, so it's important to own that."

That admonition should inform everyone who unexpectedly finds himself or herself in need of a public act of contrition. Got that, Lars?

-- Jon Healey

Credit: Guillaume Horcajuelo / EPA

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