Is it imprecise to say that we seem to be in an era where public apologies have never felt more ubiquitous and elusive? On the one hand, whether from a corporation or a celebrity (or a podcast), they are a routinely expected occurrence nowadays, coming and going like the weather. On the other hand, the air is thick with powerful individuals and institutions that simply see no need to apologize at all. And the apologies we do get rarely feel consequential. They hardly ever transcend suspicion of being mere exercises in image management. It’s a sorry state of sorries.
Into this muck steps Say You’re Sorry, a new Audible Original that dropped earlier this month. Created by the writer Lux Alptraum, who co-hosts the series with producer Siona Peterous, the series bills itself as a study of public apologies that intends to understand why they’re so hard to execute well and why they’re often difficult to believe. The premise is instantly engaging, made even more compelling by the fact that Say You’re Sorry is a project by Bucket of Eels, the new audio studio founded by Rose Eveleth, best known as the creator of the great futurism podcast Flash Forward. (Alptraum, by the way, also hosted the second season of New York Magazine’s audio documentary series, Tabloid.)
Say You’re Sorry is structured as a survey of several case studies from a few different “apology arenas.” One such arena in the celebrity apology, perhaps the most popularly traded form in the genre. The series opens with a brief chapter appraising Justin Timberlake’s recent Instagram apology to Britney Spears and Janet Jackson (too little, too late), and another episode is dedicated to a messy series of events featuring Ariana Grande. That latter case is a saga that involves, among other things: Grande’s feud with critics over accusations that the pop megastar appropriates Black culture, a nasty tweet from a critic who was once a devoted fan, even nastier online harassment of that critic by a mob of Grande’s stans, a private apology from the star, and an uneasy detente as the critic realizes the star doesn’t fully appreciate the severity of the harassment and thus likely wasn’t ever going to do anything to rein in her followers. (They are, after all, the source of her wealth and power.)
Say You’re Sorry recounts the details of that story in forensic fashion, sometimes nearing the point of parody. But the meticulous approach is a big part of the show’s draw. It’s also necessary for the instances when the series grapples with significantly heavier material, which it does constantly throughout its run. One exceptional example is the second episode, which explores the story of Lacy Crawford, a woman who was sexually assaulted several decades ago when she attended St. Paul’s, a boarding school in New Hampshire. The school administration systematically downplayed her attempts to raise the issue at the time, and it wasn’t until Crawford published a memoir about her experience, Notes on a Silencing, last year when the school’s board finally sent her an apology. Say You’re Sorry revisits those earlier events with precision, and asks her what happened next. Crawford was initially moved by the letter, its contents having made her feel like her pain was finally acknowledged. But the warm reception would curdle as she began to notice the machinery behind the note. She spots a school administrator circulating coverage of the apology as positive press. She later becomes aware of an internal email, written before the apology, regarding her memoir as a public relations threat. Whatever goodwill there was immediately evaporated, as the cold logic of the institution’s self-preservation gambit made itself known.
The tension between performance and intent runs throughout Say You’re Sorry. It comes across whether Alptraum and Peterous are analyzing a tearful YouTube apology or attempts by nations to implement a policy of reparations to account for historical harms. (Both stories feature elsewhere in the season.) The series builds towards an effort to resolve that tension, landing upon an argument that it’s not the delivery of an apology that’s necessarily important, but the intent. “To apologize well, you have to stop thinking about yourself and put whoever you hurt before your public reputation, your image, or your national pride,” Alptraum concludes.
Therein lies the rub. It’s hard, at this moment in time anyway, to believe in a world where a powerful individual or institution would apologize for a grievance they’ve incurred and is actually sincere about it. They may ask forgiveness, they may promise internal change, they may write a check, they may even introduce new policies, but rarely does the overarching power dynamic change, and rarely is there a true redistribution of burden.
Say You’re Sorry acknowledges this notion in its introduction, particularly through a recitation of Peterous’ philosophical position going into the project. “What is the point?” she says. “Look, I’m a Black woman from a poor immigrant background, and I’ve seen how apologies are weaponized against people like me. How ‘sorry’ and other platitudes are used to brush aside the real structural work that needs to happen to make things right … I’d honestly rather someone just keep it moving than give me a meaningless apology.” Towards the end of the series, I found myself leaning toward this stance as well (even as Peterous herself ends up becoming more open to the power of apologies). But the show never quite wrestles with the depths of this idea head-on, opting instead to conclude more optimistically by dedicating its final episode to an intimate story of a private, interpersonal apology between a mother and a daughter, highlighting the core human need — to have one’s pain be acknowledged, at the very least — that’s being served by the act. It’s a graceful choice, but also a bit of a bummer. It makes me wonder about a version of this show that commits to a more radical vision, a world where apologies are functionally useless.
Nevertheless, the promise of sincere apologies from the public and the powerful remains alluring, and the way the podcas Say You’re Sorry underscores that truth is the thing that keeps me thinking about the series long after I listened to it. There’s another tension being highlighted here: genuine apologies are impossible to verify, yet we continue to want them so badly. It’s a very human quality. Say You’re Sorry might not entirely fulfill the promise of its premise, but it still provides a potent space to meditate on the question of what we want out of public apologies — and why we bother in the first place.