The Apology-Gotcha Game

The "Apology-Gotcha Game" has become one of American politics's favorite indoor sports -- one that has increasingly dominated our public political discourse over the past decade.  If you want to play, it helps if your cause is politically correct.  In that case, the media is more likely to be on your side, which is vital because media support is essential to winning.

Here's how the Apology-Gotcha Game is played.  

The game starts when someone on the "other side" says or does something that might conceivably offend (though of course it never really does offend).  Your immediate response: publicly claim mortal offense -- this secures your position as a victim -- and then very publicly demand a public apology.  If the media becomes engaged -- which is essential to your success -- then the various reporters and commentators will pile on, supporting your demand, as the politically correct victim, for an apology.  As long as they continue covering the "issue," they'll pressure the offending party until he or she caves in and issues an apology.  Then the media will decide if the apology is sufficiently sincere -- the media may require several rounds of apologies before these arbiters of PC finally accept it.

You play the game not because you're offended.  There is never any real offense -- this is, after all, a game.  You play the game because demanding an apology positions you as a sympathetic victim, and that generates press coverage; even better, securing an apology proves that you're stronger and more powerful than your opponent. 

The public isn't aware that this is only a game, one with no real-world substance.  They don't realize that no player who demands a sincere apology really expects, nor do they understand that no player believes, if he receives a public apology, that it actually reflects honest remorse.  Nonetheless, the players -- as well as their supporters in the media -- all treat the Apology-Gotcha Game as if it is for real.  Whether it's aimed at someone who posts a politically incorrect tweet or toward some politician who makes a "Washington Gaffe" (memorably defined by Michael Kinsley as a "politician caught telling the truth"), the demand for an apology is a power play.

Though its members clearly know better, the media frequently acts as if this demand is legitimate and sincere.  This is especially true when the cause -- or the supposed insult -- fits the media's template.  When this happens, the media willingly adds to the pressure for an apology.  That was certainly the case a few weeks ago, when Planned Parenthood's supporters vigorously demanded that the Susan G. Komen group "apologize" for refusing further grant requests from Planned Parenthood.  Because it didn't go far enough, Komen's initial official apology fell on deaf ears -- it wasn't until a politically active conservative executive resigned her job, voluntarily eschewing her severance and retirement package, that the furor and orchestrated demand for an apology died down.  This Koman/Planned Parenthood kerfuffle was a classic exercise in power-playing and score-keeping.

There is nothing new about the Apology-Gotcha Game.  Yet time and again, conservatives buckle under to the demands of those who are "offended" and respond to the media as if they were actually guilty of something.

What is amazing about this phenomenon is:

1.      How many times conservatives act like the demand for an apology is sincere,

2.      How many times conservatives actually deliver on the demanded apology, and

3.      How many times conservatives seem surprised that even a heartfelt apology doesn't make the problem go away.

On the other hand, when conservatives feel that they have been "offended" by something that a progressive or politically correct icon says and try to play the Apology-Gotcha Game, it's amazing: 

A.    How many times offended conservatives ask for demands from liberals, thinking that an apology would actually make a difference;

B.    How many times offended conservatives seem surprised that the media doesn't join in their demand for an apology; and

C.    How few times that the PC offender plays the game and actually apologizes.

The most recent ill-advised example of outraged conservatives trying to play the Apology-Gotcha Game, and being disappointed when their demand for an apology is ignored, revolves around the Huffington Post columnist Larry Doyle's "satiric" column, "The Jesus-Eating Cult of Rick Santorum." 

It should come as no surprise that neither Arianna Huffington nor former Simpsons script-writer Doyle has refused to apologize -- and with the exception of Fox News, the media is largely ignoring this issue.  Usually, conservatives know better than to play the Apology-Gotcha game.

Rather than trying to play the game and hoping that the problem will disappear, stand firm on principle.  Don't joke about it, don't play along with the media, and -- unless you've really done or said something wrong that you feel remorse for -- don't apologize.  Explain the truth as you see it, batten down the hatches, and prepare to ride out the storm.  You will suffer storm-damage, but if you maintain your integrity, you will survive with your honor intact, and your friends still on your side.

Bottom line: the Apology-Gotcha Game, generally featuring an outraged progressive victim demanding a public apology from a conservative antagonist, is nothing more than a cynical way of generating publicity and exerting power.  The apology itself -- or the refusal to issue an apology -- is merely a way of keeping score.  The only way you can lose is to cave in on your principles, ignore the truth, and hope that an insincere public apology will actually solve the problem.

As a postscript, one final note: while many of his opponents believe that President Obama has become our "apologizer in chief," he doesn't play the Apology-Gotcha Game.  When he apologizes, he's not giving in to the demands of some group he's offended.  Rather, he uses official apologies for different reasons -- reasons having nothing to do with the "Apology-Gotcha Game."

Ned Barnett is CEO of Barnett Marketing Communications ( in Las Vegas.  The author of nine books and an adjunct professor at two universities, Barnett has managed strategy and media for three presidential campaigns -- in South Carolina and Nevada -- and in 2010, he served as communications director of both the Clark County/Las Vegas and Nevada Republican Parties.  Since the mid-'70s, he has managed issues advocacy campaigns for not-for-profit employers and clients, and he is a frequent speaker and author on subjects related to such causes.