Every time someone gets #MeToo’d, it’s yet another public epiphany — albeit one with diminishing returns.

We keep confronting our collective gullibility, our misplaced faith in institutions. But there’s a related phenomenon just as ubiquitous to the “Menghazi” scandal that I think deserves more of our scrutiny: the state of the public apology.

Spoiler on that current state: It’s not great. Try to remember the last time an accused creep issued a public response that made you feel even a minor sense of satisfaction. But why should that be, in an era when social media has people more practiced than ever at addressing the public at large? And how do celebrities manage to witness public apologies either flying or failing on a regular basis, but never learn anything from the process when they’re the ones called to the carpet?


The Bare Minimum

You can rank any apology on a spectrum that ranges from admirable to pathetic based on how many of the four basic criteria it manages to hit, writes Michael Karson, professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology: Does the statement acknowledge what they did, why they did it, the damage they caused, and why it won’t happen again?

Splendid, that would make for a five-star apology.

Unfortunately, all it takes is a small sample of well-known public statements from the past year to remind us that precious few hit the mark. Louis C.K.’s memorable if divisive apology definitely covered all four parts, but still caught flack for using words like “regret” and “remorse” instead of a straight-up “I’m sorry.” I found that a little semantic, but I also thought that saying he was “admired” four times in one paragraph felt like a poor reading of the room. Garrison Keillor’s comment on a years-long laundry list of deeply shitty sexually inappropriate workplace behavior, ranging from hostile quid pro quo badgering to posting a dirty limerick about an employee on a whiteboard, was the smug assertion that he had “nothing to apologize for.” Of course, there was Kevin Spacey’s laughable attempt to pivot from an apology to a coming-out party.

Dan Harmon, on the other hand, spoke candidly and incisively about a two-year ordeal of near-constant workplace harassment that he put writer Megan Ganz through during the production of the sitcom Community — specifying not just what he did, but also how he wrongly justified it to himself at the time and how both his actions and his gaslighting denials affected her. His remains, quite possibly, the best and most effective apology of this entire moment. But in general, most responses have been middlingly disappointing, with powerful men daintily apologizing for anything from the list of charges against them that may have perhaps bothered someone.

People often speculate that such a vague and unenthused apology can be a legal measure, since a public apology can in fact be used as an admission of guilt in a courtroom. As a result, more than 30 states have passed so-called “apology laws”, which protect such an apologizer from exactly that situation, drawing on studies that indicate a wronged party is less likely to sue if they simply receive a genuine apology. Unfortunately, all but 10 of those states ended up passing watered-down versions of these laws, which only protect infuriating expressions of sympathy like, “I’m sorry you’re in pain,” or “I’m sorry this happened to you.”

And yet, many of the most unsatisfying, wishy-washy #MeToo apologies have come in response to incidents long past the statutes of limitations. Take Dustin Hoffman’s response to Anna Graham Hunter’s detailed account of how he treated her on the set of the 1985 TV movie Death of a Salesman when she was a 17-year-old PA:

“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.”

Let’s work backwards through the four parts. Does Hoffman explain why he’ll never do something like this again? “Not reflective of who [he is],” could imply he won’t repeat this behavior because it isn’t in his normal character. But you could also read this as Hoffman simply distancing himself from the story. As for acknowledging the damage, putting the then-teenage Graham Hunter in “an uncomfortable situation” feels like a pretty weak-sauce recognition of her horrifying and humiliating experiences. When it comes to why the behavior happened in the first place, Hoffman doesn’t tackle that question at all — too bad, since that can sometimes provide a little context for how an otherwise good person could make a destructive choice. And lastly, does it acknowledge what he did? Uh, sort of. The “If anything I might have done” would seem to imply that either Hoffman doesn’t remember much of these interactions or disputes Graham Hunter’s account. None of that makes for a great apology, landing this whole statement at a grade somewhere below a C.


A Sexual Rashomon

Okay, so Hoffman apparently doesn’t remember the events Graham Hunter describes. This isn’t the moral impasse it may seem; two memories of the same encounter can dramatically differ. There isn’t some mathematical standard of logic preventing all accused harassers who feel this way from sincerely apologizing — with a little self-reflection, almost all of them can pull it off.

They can, but of course, they seldom do. Take, for another example, petite hero of the ‘70s/’80s screen Richard Dreyfuss, who was accused by writer Jessica Teich of being incredibly gross and inappropriate, most egregiously exposing himself to her in his trailer while they were working on the incomprehensibly dorky 1987 TV special You Don’t Look 200: A Constitutional Vaudeville.

When contacted for a response, Dreyfuss offered one of the most effective apologies I’d heard in recent memory, fully owning the enormity of his problematic behavior and admitting that he’d have to reevaluate decades of interactions with women — a prospect that prompts many to put on blinders instead of formulating an apology at all. But then his response hits a brick wall; after admitting to almost everything else, he vehemently denies taking his dick out. Early on, he admits:

At the height of my fame in the late 1970s I became an asshole—the kind of performative masculine man my father had modeled for me to be. I lived by the motto, “If you don’t flirt, you die.” And flirt I did. I flirted with all women, be they actresses, producers, or 80-year-old grandmothers. I even flirted with those who were out of bounds, like the wives of some of my best friends, which especially revolts me. I disrespected myself, and I disrespected them, and ignored my own ethics, which I regret more deeply than I can express. During those years I was swept up in a world of celebrity and drugs — which are not excuses, just truths. Since then I have had to redefine what it means to be a man, and an ethical man. I think every man on Earth has or will have to grapple with this question.
Richard Dreyfuss’ response to Jessica Teich’s allegations.

Dreyfuss owns that he did indeed blissfully and obliviously believe that his constant barrage of uncomfortable flirting with Teich and many others was consensual — not something less-powerful women were tolerating because they didn’t want to jeopardize their jobs. He admits he tried to kiss Teich, but then about-faces when it comes to the most serious allegation:

I emphatically deny ever “exposing” myself to Jessica Teich, whom I have considered a friend for 30 years.

As if she must be misremembering just this one part. Similarly, Hoffman doubled down on the “I admit nothing” vibe when pressed by John Oliver at a Tribeca Institute screening panel, saying of the allegations against him:

I still don’t know who this woman is. I never met her.

Even if we were to go so far as to assume that Graham Hunter forged the original diaries and letters in which she described Hoffman’s behavior at the time, we’d still have the testimony of 100 or more people who were around them on set. For chrissake, we’d still have the picture of Hoffman with his arm around her.

“Come on, what does that prove?” someone is saying right now, “He’s met thousands of people on hundreds of sets. You expect him to remember this one girl?” Of course not. That’s exactly the point. Experiences like these are nowhere near as memorable for the perpetrators as they are for the victims. Men like Hoffman and Dreyfuss were surfing a wave of auteur blockbusters, surrounded by sycophants, and meeting more new, interchangeable people per year in the forms of writers and script supervisors and makeup artists than you or I will probably meet in our entire lifetimes. Dreyfuss even cops to being swept up in a world of “celebrities and drugs.” Why in the world should we think the guys who lived whirlwind, consequence-free lives and probably had access to the best cocaine in America should somehow be the ones with the most reliable memories of these things?

Why in the world should we think the guys who lived whirlwind, consequence-free lives and quite possibly had access to the best cocaine in America should somehow be the ones with the most reliable memories of these things?

Some of this is probably about denial. And I don’t mean a strongly worded proclamation of your innocence. I mean the psychological kind, where you’re so ashamed about something that your unconscious mind relegates it to your Deleted Photos folder like it never happened. As a psychologist only in the armchair sense (which is to say, no real sense at all), I feel like the intense shame associated with taking your penis out for an uninterested party might very well till deep in some men’s psyches. I’d like to think that if I whipped my clam out in front of somebody, I would remember it later. But I’ve never lived through a decade-plus bender of wielding seismic power through my ability to make millions for film studios, and I’ve never walked around like a cartoon tomcat, seeing everything through a lens of oblivious privilege offered by my gender. A man in those conditions might easily forget something that you or I would regard as a landmark event.

There are also cases where I suspect it’s not so much an issue of the culprit forgetting (or even willfully forgetting) an incident, but of him sincerely remembering an incident dramatically differently than the victim does. James Franco offered a statement that was as respectful as a nonapology can probably be after five women, whom he hired out of an acting class he was teaching, later accused him of demeaning and exploitative behavior. Specifically, of removing dental dams while shooting a scene featuring simulated oral sex and of becoming angry when none of them would volunteer to show their breasts. In an appearance on the Late Show, Franco responded by telling Stephen Colbert:

Look, in my life I pride myself on taking responsibility for things that I have done. I have to do that to maintain my well-being. The things that I heard that were on Twitter are not accurate. But I completely support people coming out and being able to have a voice, because they didn’t have a voice for so long. So I don’t want to shut them down in any way.

Translation: These accusations aren’t true, but I’m not going to jump onto a soapbox about it because I support this movement. A decent response if we imagine the charges are all untrue. The problem is that we know the chances that the women made up these stories out of thin air for the benefit of fuck all are quite slim. But that’s not all there is to it. Because the notion that either the women are being truthful and Franco did indeed do those things or the women are liars and Franco is innocent is a false dichotomy.

Obviously, I have no idea on what grounds Franco disputes the allegations, but I suspect that what he denies is how exactly this story played out. I’d bet that in his sincere memory, everything that occurred on set was copacetic. He asked before he made any changes; he was even-tempered about the nudity; the women didn’t seem freaked out at the time. And, much like with Dreyfuss and Hoffman and their years of egomaniacal ignorance, Franco assumes that his perception equals reality. We all do.

Franco is remembering his own choices, words, and tone the way they would sound to him. Not the way they would sound to an as-yet unprofessional actor who pays her rent with a minimum-wage temp job and who’s being directed by a very famous and well-connected movie star. Not the way they would sound to a woman who has lived her entire life in a culture that still canonizes men as figures of inherent authority. To a woman whose culture regularly denies women agency over their own bodies even as it exploits and commoditizes those bodies. Take into account the power differential, and his tone might not have sounded so chill to the women he was speaking to.

In that case, neither party is lying, but it’s on the person with power to realize that his personal account of a situation doesn’t necessarily represent objective reality. Franco, like so many other accused harassers, is still in the celebrity doghouse because his pseudo-apology was really just a de facto denial. And it’s a shame, because I suspect many of these men would be helping themselves and the culture that got us here if they conceded with the simple but powerful statement, “I don’t remember the situation going down that way. But my perception probably has a lot to do with my privilege.” They could fill out the rest of the four parts however they want.