Nope, What Rep. Yoho Said Was Not an Apology

Public apologies require the same steps we need in personal amends.

Posted Aug 01, 2020

Last week, a Congressman allegedly insulted a Congresswoman, calling her “disgusting,” “crazy,” “dangerous,” and a f***ing b***. The next day, he spoke about the incident from the floor of the United States House of Representatives. Although he used the words “I apologize,” what he said raised more questions than it answered. Based on their a priori assumptions, citizen viewers may see his speech as an obligatory public apology or a misguided attempt to distract from his misbehavior.

Almost immediately, people began sending me clips and transcripts of his statement. Among my friends and colleagues, the word has gotten out that I’m a serious observer of apologies. (Coincidentally, he made his speech the day after my nonfiction book about making amends – A Good Apology: Four Steps to Make Things Right — came out.) I paid a lot of attention to his words.

Was his statement, in fact, an apology? In order to assess fully the quality of his possibly-an-apology, let’s consider first what Rep. Ted Yoho said and then what he didn’t say.

A. What he said. 

First of all, he stated, “I apologize for strife I injected into the already contentious Congress.” A little later he said, “I rise to apologize for the abrupt manner of the conversation I had with my colleague from New York” (who is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and asserted that disagreement does not warrant disrespectfulness.

In my view, he started off okay there, except that, in between those two sentences, he asserted that his colleagues know that he is a man of his word, which is not really relevant (more on this below).

Most notably, he went on to deny that the “offensive comments,” reportedly heard by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and overheard by reporters, were “spoken to colleagues.” Regarding those who may have construed his words that way, he said, “I apologize for their misunderstanding.” I must admit, this kind of statement always stops me in my tracks. It sounds like an apology is coming, but the meaning twists in the middle and transforms into something else entirely.  

He turned the idea of personal regret on its head; he managed to criticize the reporters and Rep. AOC for misconstruing his words; and, further, he blamed them for the problematic situation in which he finds himself. His maneuver resembles an “I’m sorry” statement, but isn’t about his behavior at all. It’s a version of “I’m sorry you think that I …” or “I’m sorry that you’re so upset …” or “I’m sorry, but you …” All these are examples of what I’ve recommended an apologizer be sure not to do (see my earlier post). Anything other than taking responsibility for your actions and their effect on someone else isn’t a good statement of apology.

He also stated, “I cannot apologize for my passion!” as if his strong feeling were the objectionable act. It may be necessary to remind him that feelings are not the same as actions. In any case, it’s my impression that he actually mentioned his passion as a positive, favorable aspect of himself – as if to say, his admirably strong commitment to his positions and values made him do what he did and he’s okay with that. Wait a second: Did he behave in a questionable way, which he’s saying is justified, or did he not? 

This reminds me of the person who is found with your missing, now broken belonging and says, I didn’t take it and besides it was broken when I took it.

His “apology” also mentions Rep. Yoho’s family constellation, which includes a wife and daughters. His implication appears to be that a family man wouldn’t say mean, sexist things. This defense by character reference isn’t an effective apology strategy, because the people to whom he’s related do not disprove his harmful actions. Nor does the kind of person he thinks he is or that he says other people think he is (as per his earlier assertion). Nor do his religious convictions, which he also brought in, near the end of his statement. None of these assertions have anything to do with whether or not he said the words he was reported to have said, much less their impact.

US House Office of Photography [Public Domain]
Rep. Ted Yoho (R - FL)
Source: US House Office of Photography [Public Domain]

B. Now let’s look at what Rep. Yoho did not say.

In a good apology, the first step is understanding the effect of one’s actions—that is, the nature and extent of the injury done to the other person or party. In terms of the behavior he admits and apologizes for, he did not seek to understand the impact of his abrupt conversational manner or the strife he contributed to a contentious Congress. His comments suggest that the injured party may be Congress itself, which he has now caused to be more contentious. There are no doubt people he could ask and sociological and historical documents he could consult about the downstream consequences of increasing conflict in organizations. But he did not inquire into such possible harm at all.

If he were to consider Rep. AOC the party affected by his abrupt, strife-producing comments, he would do well to consider – or inquire into – what the effects on her are. There was no suggestion that he was curious about these interpersonal effects, either.

The second step of a good apology requires that a sincere statement of responsibility and regret be made to the harmed person. Perhaps Rep. Yoho’s speech could be seen as an attempt to make such a statement to the House of Representatives, which he may have harmed. I’d give him a barely passing grade on that front, for the reasons already stated, but the biggest drawback to his second step is that not only did he not address the person he allegedly insulted, he never once mentioned her name.

For an apology to be effective, the third step involves making up for the hurtful behavior. The apologizer has to offer fitting restitution for what he’s cost the other party. In this case, he offered nothing to Rep. AOC or to Congress. He asserted his legitimacy and authority about poverty and truthfulness, rather than trying to make right the wrong caused by his disrespectful behavior and language. If he’d wanted to make restitution to the House, he could have gone on to propose ways to improve discourse among Representatives, particularly across the aisle. Specifically, he could have refuted the accusatory characterizations he may have made about Rep. AOC (even aside from the most offensive phrase).

If he wanted to complete a genuine apology, the important fourth step requires him to prevent any troubling actions from being repeated. In this regard, he could have sought input from other Congresswomen about how to go about it. He could have looked into the ways that aggressive language is on a continuum with physical violence. He could have taken steps to reduce both – in the context of public debate, as well as in personal interactions outside the Chamber. He could propose education about nonviolent communication in his home district as well.

C. So what does this mean?

None of those things happened, so I conclude this was not an apology.

Questions arise: Could Rep. Yoho learn to make a good apology? If so, what would it take? Does he (and do we) know what an effective, thorough apology actually looks like? 

In my next post, you’ll hear about some better apology attempts by public figures – and even a really good one by a politician.