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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 24-Oct-08


Friday 24-October-08

The public grovel

I went to a lecture at the RSA recently entitled 'The Art of the Public Grovel'. It is an interesting phenomenon when people in high office, and perhaps with a certain sense of superiority, are humbled and are forced into an embarrassing public apology. Classic examples, of course are Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal and Bill Clinton after the Monica Lewinsky revelations. The talk also covered the Jimmy Swaggart affair, where a TV evangelist who built a significant ministry with a strong anti-porn element got caught with a prostitute.

The lecture was given by Susan Wise Bauer and was the standard RSA fayre of a luminary doing a global lecture tour in support of a book publication. The lectures are free and invariably of a very high quality.

The right way to successfully apologise apparently has three elements.

First, you need to bring yourself down to the same level as your audience, connecting with them and effectively saying 'I am just like you'. Bill Clinton did this by saying things like 'my fellow Americans' and describing the presidency as serving the people. Preacher Jimmy Swaggart talked of being a 'sinner amongst sinners'.

Secondly, you need to ask for forgiveness. This can be emotionally difficult for people used to be in a position of power. In effect, you must cede power to your audience, abasing yourself and placing yourself at the mercy of the crowd.

Thirdly, they need to encourage forgiveness by framing yourself as a victim. Bill Clinton did this by having Monica Lewinsky portrayed as a social climber with few values, for example with condemnation from her former classmates. This turned her I to the seducer and left Clinton implied as just a normal, red-blooded American male. Swaggart rather cleverly used his succumbing to sexual deviance as evidence of the terrible power of porn, in effect saying 'look -- it's so powerful it even got me!'

As a result, both Clinton and Swaggart wriggled off the hook of damaging public approval and even gained some kudos into the bargain. Swaggart, however, lost out when he got caught out again in the following year and, assuming he could now get away with it, did not even attempt to apologize. As a result, his congregation abandoned him and he was cast out into the wilderness of the ordinary world.

It was a fascinating lecture and I asked if the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, should apologize. She had been found guilty of abuse of power and was accused of misappropriating state funds for her children (and falsifying records about this). The answer was a guarded 'yes'. If the electorate considers her guilty, then an apology could restore faith and perhaps demonstrate some strength of character. The dilemma, however, is that this could lead to prosecution, which could cause even worse personal repercussions. In the end, the best advice to her was to prepare an apology but only use it as a last resort. .

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