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Never apologise. Explain without apology.

“In politics apologies just make things worse”, writes Daniel Finkelstein in the Times. The subtitle to his piece is “Boris Johnson should be sorry about the Owen Paterson affair but actually saying so would do him more harm than good”, and that sums up the article: the rather bleak observation that in politics apologies do not pay. Finkelstein stresses that he is not saying they shouldn’t work, just that they usually don’t. To illustrate this he cites an experiment carried out by Cass Sunstein:

In Cass Sunstein’s recent book This Is Not Normal he describes two pieces of work that seek to measure the impact an apology has on people’s opinion of the person doing the apologising.

The first uses two real events. In a survey respondents were told about an occasion when the senator Rand Paul seemed to suggest that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was wrong to forbid private discrimination on the basis of race. They were also told of the difficulty Lawrence Summers got himself into as president of Harvard University. Summers had talked about genetic differences between men and women that might influence their scientific interest and ability.

Different versions of each of these stories were tested. Some respondents were told that Paul or Summers had apologised and tried to make amends; some were told they had toughed it out. Would you vote for senator Paul? Should Summers face negative consequences?

For Paul, an apology made no difference. For Summers the apology produced a serious negative reaction. And indeed in real life Paul avoided an explicit apology and remained a senator while Summers repeatedly apologised yet had to resign.

That was Finkelstein quoting Sunstein. This is me: neither Rand Paul nor Larry Summers should have apologised. The inefficacy of apology as a tactic had very little to do with it. They should not have cringed, they should have roared.

Senator Paul was right to say what he did. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was wrong to forbid private discrimination on the basis of race. The various US Civil Rights Acts were utterly right to sweep away the state-mandated apartheid of the Old South, and to dismantle the system of legal dirty tricks designed to make it almost impossible for black Americans to actually exercise their theoretical right to vote. But they should have left individuals alone. There would now be less racism, not more, if the US government had stuck to its job of enforcing the equal application of the laws and had kept out of men’s souls. Instead for my entire lifetime it has been trying to help the poor, poor blacks and reform the wicked, wicked whites. The keenest supporters of that policy proclaim its utter failure: they tell us that fifty-seven years after the Act white supremacy is embedded in every American institution. So let’s take them at their word, cease pursuing this obviously futile strategy, and try something else.

Lawrence Summers was also right to say what he did, which was that people should be unafraid to honestly consider all hypotheses as to why there are fewer women in science and engineering, including the one that men just tend to be better at science and engineering. He was right to say that no hypothesis should be off the table, and even if he had been wrong about that particular hypothesis (speaking as a woman who was once in that world, I don’t think he was wrong), he was right to raise the question. Harvard’s decline from a place of free scientific enquiry to a training ground for little Lysenkos became almost inevitable from the moment it forced out its last independent president. Not that the other American universities or the British ones are much better. They are all full of people each competing to apologise the most fervently for their own institution’s sinful existence. I begin to think that, here, too, the best thing might be to take them at their word.

19 comments to Never apologise. Explain without apology.

  • Stonyground

    I always thought that issuing an apology and/or retraction if it turns out you are wrong was the sensible thing to do. Changing our position on receipt of new information is the only way we can learn and grow. What infuriates me is when people apologise for making a statement that is objectively true. If detractors can disprove the statement they should do so, if they can’t then they are the ones who should be apologising.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Stonyground writes, “I always thought that issuing an apology and/or retraction if it turns out you are wrong was the sensible thing to do.” I do agree – honestly, I thought of that very point a second or two after I pressed “post” – but the title was meant to be play on “Never apologise, never explain” and it would ruin the line to insert brackets and a disclaimer. Also the Elves don’t like it when titles are changed after a post is published, and show their displeasure in strange and unpredictable ways.

    Talking of which, I trust I was right to delete your first comment which looked to be a near-duplicate of your second.

  • John


    Slightly off topic but over the last few days we have seen a cricketer in front of MPs speaking about the racism he has faced. A great many careers, in media as well as in the sport, have and will be ruined as a result.

    The attached press cutting from a highly reputable source suggests that the young man was also capable of dishing it out.

  • James Strong

    People who are identifying as men are clutching their pearls over ‘the P word’, which I assume is Paki.

    It’s a word I’ve heard, and used, many times. I’ve also heard ‘fat twat’, ‘ginger c—‘, ‘shortarse wanker’, ‘sheep-shagger’ and many others applied to many people in dressing rooms and elsewhere.

    I suppose it’s OK to call people Yank, Kiwi, Bruce or Convict.The recipients of those names are probably not ‘of colour’.

    Having seen the suffering former cricketer on TV I think it’s very likely that he wasn’t disliked because of his race, he may well have been disliked because he is an unlikeable individual.

    But it seems that it’s now only acceptable to instantly believe any claims from alleged victims of racism. Don’t bring any scepticism to it, don’t ask for evidence, don’t give the accused adequate chance to respond.

    Many years ago, maybe in 2004 or 2005 I told someone to ‘Piss off back up North’.

    Mea Culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

  • Sigivald

    The other irony is that Summers was not saying “men are just better at engineering and science”.

    He was saying that mathematical ability has a differently shaped bell curve in men and women, with men having more outliers on both ends of the curve, and women having fewer on both ends.

    “More men are incompetent at math than women” is thus also true, and somehow saying that would not get anyone in any trouble at all.

    Because this is about – to the extent it’s not a pure power play or posturing with this as cheap fuel – stupid political shit, not reality; Althouse’s Rule holds. Men and women can be “different” as long as women are presented as superior or better off, even if the data is exactly the same.

  • Lee Moore

    Yes, it looks like a poorly designed experiment (or a well designed experiment to get the result you want.)

    As Stonyground implies, a better designed experiment would be to select statements that are unambiguously wrong, and measure the effect of an apology or not an apology.

    Apologising for something that wasn’t wrong might gain you a vote or two from a few folk who thought you were wrong, but it’s going to lose you lotsa votes from people who thought you were right.

    The consequences for politicians, given that what they say is often half true half false, is that an apology is almost always a mistake. For in addition to losing votes from people who thought you were right in the first place, you’ll also lose votes from people who didn’t know whether you were right or wrong, but now you have confessed to error they’ll assume you are usually wrong.

    And if you’re a rightish wing politician the folly of apology is even greater, since the media will undoubtedly big up your apology to make it looked like you’ve apologised for your entire political programme, and are generally ashamed of ever having existed. And your apology will be reprised in every interview you ever do, forever. OK not forever. Just for life.

  • Paul Marks

    Good post – thank you for writing it Natalie.

    Mr Finklestein – he always seems to be in support of more government, more spending and more regulations. I hope I am mistaken – but he appears more part of the problem than part of the suloution.

    Cass Sunstein – Dr “Nudge” himself, a totalitarian in a smiley face mask. It is disgraceful that so many Western governments now have Behaviour Modification teams inspired by his evil (yes evil) doctrines.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Going slightly off-topic:
    I never understood the point of Larry Summers’ talk about possible genetic factors in sex/gender differences in STEM achievement. I mean, he did not say anything that people could not find out on the web, if they were interested. Why confront people with ideas that they are not willing to face?

    If you are going to confront people with ideas that they are not willing to face, at least start out by telling them that there are ideas that they are not willing to face; and therefore they will never know whether they are true or not.

  • Shlomo Maistre

    If you are going to confront people with ideas that they are not willing to face, at least start out by telling them that there are ideas that they are not willing to face; and therefore they will never know whether they are true or not.

    This is interesting and probably good advice in most cases. I like it.

  • Stonyground

    Yes and thanks, the first effort had some words missing. I tried to use the edit facility but I couldn’t work out how to insert the missing words. Anyway, all sorted now.

  • The Pedant-General


    I would love this to be true. My fear is that it’s not that people are not willing to face certain ideas. It’s that those people are so certain of the truth of their viewpoint that anything you say to the contrary MUST be a) a lie and, ergo, b) proof that you are evil for wanting to spread lies about obvious truths.

    Warning them that you are about to confront them with such an idea does not cause them to pause – it’s just given them time to warm up your denunciation before you’ve even formed your argument.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Pedant-General: I am not sure that there is a substantial difference between what you wrote and what i wrote, but i must think about it.

  • Paul Marks

    The totalitarian Cass “Nudge” Sunstein has been known to call himself a “libertarian”.

    When he does this Cass Sunstein is doing the same thing that the Economist magazine does when it does when it calls a “Classical Liberal” publication – they are lying, but they are lying-with-a-specific-purpose. This purpose being to close off even the possibility of dissent.

    According to Cass Sunstein the only alternatives are open force from the state (say the government of Austria – with its lockdowns and now compulsory vaccination) or his own “nudge” mental manipulation (based on the “Compatibilist” philosophy, the denial of even the existence of the human person, which he gets from David Hume and others) – notice that LIBERTY is not one of these options, the only options being offered being open force or subtle conditioning (what was once called “brain washing”).

    The Economist magazine plays the same game – it does not deny the existence of Classical Liberalism, it redefines the term (much as Thomas Hobbes redefined the such terms as “law” and “justice” to mean the will of the state – rather than limits on the state). Now “Classical Liberal” means ever-bigger-government (“Net Zero”, “improved government care of the elderly” and so on).

    In the same issue the Economist magazine asks why government (the state) is growing in size and scope – the answer is obvious (although not given in the magazine), the state is growing because of the Collectivist ideology of such people as Economist magazine writers and so many others who FALSELY call themselves “liberals”.

    The best way to destroy something is to claim to be that thing – whilst really standing for its destruction.

    If Cass Sunstein gets away with calling himself a libertarian – then there is no libertarianism (the very idea of liberty is subverted).

    And it is the same with the Economist magazine (which supported John Kerry, Barack Obama, Joseph Biden and other extreme ever-bigger-government types) and Classical Liberalism – if the Economist magazine gets away with calling itself a Classical Liberal publication (again – it is engaged in this extreme dishonesty yet again this week), then there is no Classical Liberalism, the very concept of ROLLING BACK the state is negated.

  • The Pedant-General


    I think I was reacting to your conclusion ” and therefore they will never know whether they are true or not.”

    I think my point is that I am pessimistic as to whether they will actually consider the possibility that their viewpoint is not actually true.

  • Paul Marks

    Even in the 19th century we have Walter Bagehot – 3rd editor of the Economist magazine. Bank bailouts, and “concede whatever is safe to concede” on government spending generally.

    If that is “Classical Liberalism” – then Classical Liberalism is socialism by the instalment plan.

    And, sure enough, a few years later we have Sir William “we are all socialists now” Hamilton as “Liberal” Chancellor of the Exchequer.

    The best way to destroy something good is not to fight it openly – it is to infiltrate that good thing and subvert it (corrupt it) from within.

    Eventually you end up with self described “Classical Liberal” publications supporting extreme Collectivists such as John Kerry (worst voting record in the United States Senate – before Senator Obama arrived), Barack Obama (most extreme Collectivist in the Senate), and Joseph Biden – senile puppet of the Frankfurt School “Woke” Marxists.

    And soon K. Harris?

  • James Hargrave

    Harcourt, not Hamilton (the cuckold).

  • Paul Marks

    Quite correct James Hargrave – Sir William Harcourt, I apologise for my error.

    As for those who scream “there is more to Classical Liberalism than lower government spending” – I AGREE with you. for example there is defending the right to self defence against a savage mob and against a corrupt State Prosecution.

    So why were so few self described “liberals” defending Kyle Rittenhouse?

    Yes this young man has won his case – but for most of the last year the “liberal” media was not defending him, they were actively smearing him.

  • Snorri Godhi


    I think my point is that I am pessimistic as to whether they will actually consider the possibility that their viewpoint is not actually true.

    I agree on that. But that is why i think that Larry Summers should have said something to the effect that he is going to present a viewpoint that most of the audience will not even consider.

    That way, he would also have precluded his own apology.

  • Paul Marks

    Any person who says “I do not accept your laissez-faire economics of cutting government spending and-so-on – but I am a liberal, because I support basic Civil Liberties” but failed to support Kyle Rittenhouse – his basic right of self defence, is a liar.