I re-read my high school and college yearbooks this weekend. There I am with a full shock of hair and a career-prophetic Paul McCartney quote. There were some admittedly dorky things in there, a few surprises, and a bit of romantic awkwardness I wish I could scrub from my brain. But I checked really hard, just to make sure. Turns out that at no point in any of the yearbooks did I appear in blackface or in a Ku Klux Klan outfit.
For Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, the yearbook review didn’t go so well. On his medical school—yes, medical school—yearbook page, there’s a couple of high-humored blokes in such attire. When this came to light, Northam felt real bad about it. He apologized twice. Then he unapologized, claiming it wasn’t him—but then he said he dressed in blackface to imitate Michael Jackson, and made a crack about shoe polish being really hard to get off, and … hey, I dunno, man, maybe just stop talking? Especially when your lieutenant governor, the most chivalrously-named Justin Fairfax, is African-American.
Northam’s apologize-apologize-retract-implode sequence came against the backdrop of some other big apologies last week.
- The Telegraph apologized to First Lady Melania Trump after reporting some inaccuracies about her family and modeling career.
- Tom Brokaw apologized awkwardly for his statements suggesting Hispanics should work harder to assimilate.
- Cindy McCain apologized (sort of) for accusing a woman of human trafficking when she brought her daughter of another race to the airport.
- Spoiler candidate Howard Schultz apologized to Seattle for somehow misplacing the keys to the SuperSonics franchise twelve years ago.
- Sen. Elizabeth Warren told Cherokee Nation she is very sorry she took a DNA test and announced her minuscule Native American heritage.
- Actually, just about every Democratic candidate for president is sorry for something. They really, really, really want you to know that.
But you know who didn’t apologize this week? Roger Goodell, that’s who. After his referees’ incompetence stole a Super Bowl from the New Orleans Saints, the milquetoast NFL commissioner never said anything to Saints fans. Perhaps still stinging from his failed reprimand of the Saints for Bountygate, Goodell buttoned his piehole and let Saints fans stew. They bought angry billboards near the Atlanta stadium where the worst Super Bowl ever played out live.
Goodell knows something that The Telegraph, Brokaw, McCain, and those candidates may not, and Northam definitely doesn’t: the cost of apologies in the public forum is too darn high. Despite what you may have heard, it does hurt to say you’re sorry. That’s part of why our dialogue is so screwed up.
In game theory, all actions have a cost. For example, I’ve contrasted the strategy on government shutdowns for Democrats (for whom shutting down the government is incredibly expensive) and Republicans (for whom it is less expensive, but still has a serious cost). When your action is saying something, it is possible for the cost to be nothing, or almost nothing; that’s when it’s called cheap talk. But even talking has its costs.
Signaling is a type of communication where costs are assessed and results play out. When I signal to you, I decide whether to reveal my preferences—that is, whether I am resolved about something or whether I don’t care. This is a matter of showing strength or weakness. If we’re just talking, and if talk is cheap, I will always represent strength, and you will not know my true character. But if my signal actually costs me something, you will know whether I am resolved by seeing whether I’m willing to pay the cost.
Even if you’re not a game theory wonk, you’ve probably heard this word inside a phrase that’s been perverted beyond its intent: virtue signaling. Conservative activists and internet trolls use this phrase to suggest a liberal is doing some uncostly gesture—change their Facebook icon, say, or carry a reusable bag—to signal to other liberals that they are concordantly aligned. (Obviously, accusing someone of virtue signaling is in fact virtue signaling.) But the origin of the term points a different direction: it originally described the costly rituals religious people use to show faithfulness to their religion. These are not easily faked; you’re either willing to spend a day every weekend in worship or you’re not. These signals demonstrate commitment, and they allow people who care to determine whether you also care.
Apologies are a form of costly virtue signaling. One reason they’re costly is that apologizing is a declaration of guilt. If I tell you I’m sorry I ate all the pie, you can infer that I did in fact eat all the pie. Another reason is that apologizing is a promise to change behavior for it to mean anything. If I say I’m sorry I ate all the pie, I have to not eat all of the next pie. A third reason is that apologizing is an acceptance of consequences. If I say I’m sorry I ate all the pie, I may have to accept a loss of all future pie. If my transgression is more serious than eating pie, I may lose a valued relationship or have to pay damages or even go to jail. Or maybe I have to accept that people think I’m a worse person than I said I was. A loss of status can be the worst penalty.
If I want to avoid all of that, I really don’t want to apologize. For Brett Kavanaugh, apologizing to Christine Blasey Ford for assaulting her at a high school party would have been political suicide, because he already knew he would lose his Supreme Court seat if the allegation were deemed true. His belligerent defense was horrifying to many, but it may have been the only course that led to his confirmation. Apology was not an option here.
For those who are caught red-handed, though, apology is the only out. For Donald Trump, the Access Hollywood tape prompted a rare if shallow apology, because there was a sense that it would derail Trump’s candidacy. A shockingly timed drop of damaging information on the Clinton campaign was the only thing that made it possible to ignore this story; well, that and a willingness of some to not care whether their candidate was a monster. He backtracked on the apology later, saying it wasn’t him on the tape. That’s because, left to his own devices, Trump will never apologize. That’s a cost he cannot pay. His base will not allow it. His ego will not allow it.
For many who do admit error and apologize for it, the consequences are dire. Al Franken apologized for boorish behavior toward an actress; he lost his Senate seat. Laura Ingraham apologized for blasting a young survivor of a high school massacre; she lost her advertisers. Megyn Kelly apologized for saying a crazy thing about blackface; she was fired. Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel apologized for appearing in blackface; he had to resign. All were in the same spot: their sins were manifest, and they might have believed that admitting them would save their standing. If so, they were very wrong.
To be clear: What they did was wrong. We don’t want to be represented in politics or the media by people whose actions we can’t abide. This belief has led to the rise of “cancel culture,” where punishment for transgression is instantaneous, unyielding, and final. Now we end people on Twitter before the sun rises. We’re cool with that. Bad acts should lead to bad outcomes.
I have no desire to criticize cancel culture. A phenomenon that started on Black Twitter and the #metoo movement doesn’t need a white man weighing in on whether it’s correct or not. Rather, I’m just going to point out that in signaling theory, the signaler isn’t the only one who evaluates their own cost. The recipient of the signal puts a price on whether they accept the message and what they do with it. When it comes to apologies we receive, we can either pay the price of giving forgiveness or not.
Cancel culture says that the price of accepting an apology is high. When we embrace it, we declare that accepting an apology and moving on is something we put a very high value on, and it is not to be given out lightly. This has a paradoxical consequence: Those who apologize and don’t meet our price get excommunicated immediately, but those who don’t get to stay while we sort it out. Apologizing is a death sentence; not apologizing is now a survival tactic. That does seem wrong. The value of an apology should be understanding, but the cost is too high. We are pricing contrition out of the marketplace. By undervaluing apologies, we are overvaluing fighting back, especially when contrition is the morally correct act.
So back to Northam’s ping-ponging on the truth. Statement #1 came the day after a conservative website found and leaked the photo. “I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now,” he said. “This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today.” He would not resign, he said, against a drumbeat of calls for him to do just that. Three hours later, he issued statement #2, in which he said, “I’m deeply sorry. I cannot change the decisions I made, nor can I undo the harm my behavior caused then and today. I accept responsibility for my past actions and I am ready to do the hard work of regaining your trust.”
Forgiveness was not in the offing. Democratic presidential candidates, Nancy Pelosi, GOP leaders, the Virginia House Democratic Caucus, the NAACP, and many others called for him to step down. But Northam didn’t want to resign, so what could he do? No iteration of this strategy would work, so he went a very different direction.
Statement #3 had him saying, “I reflected with my family and classmates and came to the conclusion that I am not the person in the photo.” He was not apologizing for what he apologized for, then apologized again. “I want to apologize to the many people who have been hurt by this episode,” he said. “I am ready to earn your forgiveness.”
Forgiveness for what? By not admitting anything, Northam had picked a survival strategy: apologize and deny. While none of this went over particularly well, it at least bought him the time to come up with a new strategy, which, his potential replacement Justin Fairfax insinuated—and then backtracked on the insinuation—may have been to embroil Fairfax in a very unchivalrous sexual harassment scandal. To this report, Fairfax responded with a Brett Kavanaugh-like scorched earth defense. And again, that might be the right call, especially if he’s innocent. But it sure undermines the believe-the-victim argument from the Brett Kavanaugh debacle, especially now that Fairfax has retained Kavanaugh’s attorneys. And hey, just in case you thought maybe Northam and Fairfax would resign and Virginia’s attorney general could be appointed in their stead, AG Mark Herring just admitted he wore blackface in 1980 too. If Northam, Fairfax, and Herring all resign, the Republican speaker of the house becomes governor.
If your mind is reeling, I can’t blame you. Mine is too. I’m still staggering over the fact that we’re talking about blackface in 2019. But this is where we are. Even if your infringement against modern mores is in the past, apologizing gets you nothing except calls for the highest punishment in the present. There are no intermediary grounds any more. You’re canceled. Again, this could be a positive thing, a sign of awkward progress in a more enlightened era. People like Northam shouldn’t slip by without suffering serious consequence. A mere five days later, I’m impatient that Northam still sits in the governor’s mansion. Possibly like you, I expected justice by the end of the weekend. Nobody who has so compromised his ability to lead can govern a state.
But if you’ll forgive a step away from the game theory, I don’t like that I feel this way. I want a less final approach that punishes bad behavior but doesn’t stamp of knee-jerk vengeance. I want to value contrition. My acceptance of game theory tells me that by pricing out apologies and forgiveness, we’re in danger of removing our only midpoint consequences other than ruination. If we incinerate everyone for everything, we might find we’re left with nothing.
Meanwhile, I encourage you to check out your old yearbooks, if only to confirm to yourself that you were not as stupid as Ralph Northam.
Note: A few days later, I followed up this article here.
This is the thirtieth installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, and third party candidates. Many of these essays are in my new book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can preorder by clicking that link.