Dharun Ravi, facing years in prison after being convicted of using a webcam to watch his roommate kiss another man, refused to follow in the footsteps of a disgraced New Jersey governor, of a U.S. president, of numerous celebrities or even of a genius like Socrates. Instead, the 20-year-old former Rutgers student held his own in an emotionally charged courtroom Monday and refused to apologize.
Ravi broke with a centuries-old tradition in which a miscreant extends an apology to those he or she hurt. Cynics would argue that the tradition is designed to mitigate punishment – either in prison or in the court of public opinion. Religious optimists would probably argue that confession is good for the soul, and even atheists could argue that explanation leads to expiation and helps clear the air, at the very least.
But even though Ravi had become the poster child for those protesting the bullying of gays -- and even though the judge in his case was urging him to give a full-throated mea culpa -- the former student did not apologize.
An apology “would sound rehearsed and empty,” he said to the Star-Ledger. The webcam spying incident eventually prompted former roommate, Tyler Clementi, to kill himself.
“When politicians give public apologies, to me, it always sounds so insincere and false,” Ravi told the newspaper. The interview was conducted before Monday’s sentencing but published afterward. “No matter what I say, people will take it that way.”
Judge Glenn Berman said he did not consider the case a hate crime because he did not believe that Ravi hated Clementi. Ravi “had no reason to, but I do believe he acted out of colossal insensitivity,” Berman said.
Clementi's mother, Jane, said in court that she believed Ravi was hateful to her son. “Why was he so arrogant, mean-spirited and evil?” she said.
Clementi's brother James, agreed in part with Ravi, saying that an apology from Ravi would not be meaningful to him.
History is full of apologists of all stripes, those who accept blame, those who speak in the third-person acknowledging that mistakes were made by some, but not necessarily themselves, and those who use the apology in a sly way to undermine others’ authority.
Perhaps the most public self-flagellation was that of President Clinton, who after repeated denials, finally admitted in a nationally televised address that he had been involved with Monica Lewinsky.
“Indeed, I did have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible,” the president said.
Former New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey apologized to his constituents for the 2004 gay sex scandal that cost him his job, and New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer in 2008 apologized to New Yorkers for his sex scandal that involved hookers.
“I have acted in a way that violates my obligations to my family and that violates my -- or any -- sense of right and wrong. I apologize first, and most importantly, to my family. I apologize to the public, whom I promised better,” Spitzer said.
It is worth noting that Clinton has had a very successful second act as a world statesman, and Spitzer has gone on to a successful media career. McGreevey has gone into the ministry.
Speaking of the religious, the faithful who have erred are often better known for their apologies. Take, as an example, the 1998 tearful admissions of Jimmy Swaggart, apologizing for his sex scandal.
"I do not plan in any way to whitewash my sin. I do not call it a mistake, a mendacity; I call it sin. I would much rather, if possible -- and in my estimation it would not be possible -- to make it worse than less than it actually is. I have no one but myself to blame. I do not lay the fault or the blame of the charge at anyone else's feet. For no one is to blame but Jimmy Swaggart. I take the responsibility. I take the blame. I take the fault," he said.
It is not just sex that prompts apologies, though sex seems to lead most often to them. Race and ethnicity run closely behind – as vouched for by comedian Michael Richards, caught in a racist rant in 2006, or actor Mel Gibson, caught that same year in an anti-Semitic tirade.
But perhaps the slyest, and most ancient, use of the apology is in Plato’s dialog of the same name.
“The Apology” recounts the trial of Socrates, accused of corrupting the young and impiety. Throughout, Socrates modestly corrects and instructs his accusers and judges. Though convicted, at the end, it is Socrates’ defense of the search for truth that has lived on for the last 2,400 years.
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