Walter Palmer’s “apology” for killing Cecil the lion is about power and excuses, not accountability

Precious few people know how to truly say “sorry” these days.
Precious few people know how to truly say “sorry” these days.
Image: CC/Frankie Leon
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Walter Palmer, the American dentist who admitted to shooting and killing Zimbabwe’s beloved Cecil the lion, has issued an apology. Sort of.

A Minneapolis-area affiliate of Fox News obtained a copy of a letter written by Palmer and distributed to patients of his practice, River Bluff Dental. It’s three paragraphs of very diplomatic language—the type of thing a crisis-management firm might craft for a scandal-stricken Washington DC politician.

He deftly denies any knowledge of Cecil’s protected status, foisting all of the blame on “several professional guides” on whose expertise he relied to “ensure a legal hunt.”

“I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt,” he explained.

The best example of Palmer’s verbal gymnastics appears toward the note’s conclusion—the closest thing we get to an actual apology: “I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion. That was never my intention.”

He regrets that his pursuit of a legal activity resulted in the taking of Cecil the lion. In other words, “I’m sorry this particular lion got in the way of my crossbow.”

This is a masterful non-apology, riddled with passive language specially intended to confuse the chain of accountability. (In fact, the only straightforward apology Palmer offers in the letter is to those of his patients inconvenienced by the practice’s temporary closure.)

But Palmer by no means invented the craft. Nimbly-worded non-apologies have become de rigueur in an era where the Internet has made exposing malfeasance easier and more amplified than ever before.

Take a similar non-apology delivered by Thomas Jackson, chief of police in Ferguson, Missouri, to the parents of Michael Brown. The statement was delivered via video more than six weeks after the unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by a white police officer—an event that sparked protests in the St. Louis suburb and across the United States in 2014. “I’m truly sorry for the loss of your son,” Jackson said, as if Brown had simply gone missing, or died of natural causes—not shot six times, according to the county’s medical examiner. “I’m also sorry that it took so long to remove [Michael’s body] from the street,” he added.

More recently, Michael Cohen, a lawyer for GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump, told a reporter for The Daily Beast: “You cannot rape your spouse.”

In a statement issued to CNN July 28, a day after The Daily Beast published his remarks, Cohen “apologized.”

“In my moment of shock and anger, I made an inarticulate comment—which I do not believe—and which I apologize for entirely.” Sounds good so far. He apologizes entirely! But Cohen doesn’t stop there. “As an attorney, husband and father there are many injustices that offend me but nothing more than charges of rape or racism. They hit me at my core.” Nothing offends him more than “charges of rape or racism.” Nothing—not even observable instances of rape or racism, apparently. But the most bothersome part of this non-apology is the way Cohen twists his words so as to imply he was so impassioned by principles of justice that his emotions overrode reason. It’s the classic “sorry, but …”

Other notable non-apologies of late include disgraced former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s claims that he was “baited” into making racist remarks; cyclist Lance Armstrong’s apology for letting the “culture” of the Tour de France pressure him into taking steroids; Paula Deen blaming her use of the n-word on the way her young, black employees reportedly conversed with one another; Rob Ford claiming the media “misinterpreted” his insinuation that a reporter might be a pedophile; and Mitt Romney saying he was sorry “if anyone was hurt” or “offended” by his teenaged bullying of a gay classmate.

And, of course, there’s the infamous “mistakes were made” fallback, used throughout America history, from Ulysses S. Grant to Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.

Oddly enough, one of the few, real apologies to make headlines of late was one issued not by a US president, or a sports-franchise owner, or a wealthy hunting enthusiast—but by the Bay Area-rapper professionally known as Lil B.

After tweeting a distasteful joke about the transgender community on July 27, to which music critics and fans took immediate umbrage, the rapper published a series of earnestly worded confessions via Twitter. These concluded with an actual, bona fide acceptance of accountability, and a promising commitment to self-betterment:

That last tweet is particularly encouraging. So often, the delivery of an apology (or non-apology) is understood as the last stop on the public-shaming express. By admitting that he still harbors inappropriate and prejudicial thoughts, Lil B effectively frames the public apology in its true nature: the first step on a path to atonement and greater understanding, not a quick deflection of public contempt.

Direct language, “I”-statements, realism—these are the components of a genuine apology. And their employment demonstrates a real understanding of the purpose of saying sorry. After all, an apology is designed to benefit those hurt, victimized, or offended—it’s not a vehicle for the preservation of the offender’s self-esteem. Walter Palmer’s apology, in its shameless evasiveness, follows in the grand tradition of powerful people publicly shamed, proudly enacted in every civilization in human history. Palmer says not, “I’m sorry I did it,” but  “I’m sorry it happened,” with the implication that ultimately what he means is: “I’m sorry it happened to me.”