Controversial comedian Roseanne Barr was quoted in a new Washington Post interview this week, addressing her 2018 firing from her ABC sitcom, a revival of the ’90s hit Roseanne. Speaking about Sara Gilbert, who plays her on-screen daughter Darlene, she said: “She destroyed the show and my life…She will never get enough until she consumes my liver with a fine Chianti.” For context: Gilbert had tweeted about Barr’s racist comments—which were the impetus for her termination by ABC—saying they were “abhorrent, and do not reflect the beliefs of our cast and crew or anyone associated with our show.” (The show went on—rebranded as The Conners, and ABC just announced they have ordered another season.)
It’s clear that Barr simply refuses to acknowledge that she did anything wrong. But with the rise of call-out culture, it’s not so easy to pass the buck and get away with it. We’re increasingly seeing that people have no time for excuses—or apologies that don’t seem genuine.
Take Kevin Hart, for example. Instead of apologizing and trying to make amends when old homophobic tweets resurfaced late last year shortly after he was announced as the 2019 Oscars host (the show took place without a host in early March), Hart essentially claimed he had already done enough apologizing, and pulled out from hosting the award show. He acted like a toddler who was scorned and took his toys home to play by himself, when what he should have done is double down on his sincerity that he was sorry and use the incident as a teachable moment.
Similarly, when Gina Rodriguez was criticized for making anti-Black comments earlier this year, her tearful apology seemed more defensive than anything resembling contrition, and left fans feeling let down. And don’t even get me started on Louis CK, his half-assed apology and his attempted comeback.
I get that in North American culture we have a hard time owning our emotions—we hold ourselves to the Brit idiom of “Keep Calm & Carry On” just as much as our neighbours from across the pond. But our aversion to admit fault can also be more than that. “Shame likely plays a big role, but it can be more complicated,” says Ruth Hawkins, a senior associate at the Ontario Psychotherapy and Counseling Program based in Toronto. “Admitting you have hurt someone might feel like admitting to ‘being a bad person’ and it is often intolerable to hold awareness of this side of ourselves. There may also be a lot of fear involved—fear of being judged, for example, or fear of reprisal and rejection. This is very complicated and unique to each individual.”
What we all really need to do is learn how to listen and then apologize with meaning. (Any time there is a “but” in your apology, just know that you have instantly failed.)
“Begin by stopping what you are doing and focussing on the person [that you hurt] and what they are saying,” says Hawkins. “Acknowledge the hurt caused and take ownership of your actions. Don’t start with defensive language or negation of their feelings, i.e. saying ‘You took my actions wrong.’” Hawkins also recommends to try to do a role reversal and think about yourself in that person’s shoes. “Defences may still be highly activated in you and interfere with your appreciation of your role, so sometimes reflection on what is known, unknown and imagined (on both sides) can help uncover the role each person played.”
As a white woman, who is nearing 40 and raising a human who will hopefully turn into a kick-ass woman, I am trying to navigate my role in society, and I am working on how to be an ally to other men and women from different circumstances. I know am far from perfect, but acknowledging that it takes work to be a better human should not be seen as a problem—that comes with evolution, being willing to learn, being willing to admit when you make a mistake and correcting those mistakes. We should all be willing to admit that we have thoughts that are unkind or that we have work to do in unlearning prejudices toward other races and genders. We need to learn to question where these thoughts come from, in order to realize they have no bearing on the truth, and then we can put those negative thoughts aside more easily—practice makes better here.
And there are a few shining, good examples of celebrities who have managed to do this well. Community and Rick & Morty creator Dan Harmon was accused of sexual harassment back in 2018. Instead of denying all allegations, Harmon reached out to his accuser, Community writer Megan Ganz to talk to her about his behaviour. He later released a statement via his podcast to publicly apologize and take ownership of his toxic actions. To which Ganz wrote on Twitter: “It’s only seven minutes long, but it is a master class in How to Apologize. He’s not rationalizing or justifying or making excuses. He doesn’t just vaguely acknowledge some general wrongdoing in the past. He gives a full account… And so, @danharmon, I forgive you.”
In the Washington Post piece, actor and comedian Luenell Campbell, whom Barr says she planned to hire for Season 2 of the doomed Roseanne reboot, laid out how she would have wanted the famous comedian to approach her apology. “The way she could have got some traction is if she immediately did a news conference and said, ‘I have f-cked up. I am an idiot. I’m going to be seeing somebody to try to get myself together. I apologize to Valerie Jarrett. I apologize to the African American community and when you see me again, I’m going to be a more sensitive, responsible Roseanne.’ If she said that, she might be able to chill and come back,” Campbell told the Post. Campbell was asking for what most people want to see from an apology—true contrition and a willingness to be a better human.
I think it’s important to know what we want and need in these scenarios and why we need it. And it’s important for those who have done wrong to realize that a true apology can help them in the long run as well. Because, yes, a heartfelt apology benefits the victim, it helps them feel seen and heard, and can actually help build trust in the relationship between the two people. But it also has lasting benefits for the wrong-doer as well. “A heartfelt apology is a connection with your humanity,” says Hawkins. “Being vulnerable enough to acknowledge you have hurt someone and are truly sorry is a courageous act that allows deep connection with the person you have harmed.”
So, while call-out culture means asking someone to take ownership of their actions (looking at you, Ms. Barr), it shouldn’t be just about trolling or cancelling someone. Let’s use call-out culture to reflect our sincere desire to feel as if we’ve been heard on the most basic, human level. And let’s use it to show our desire to learn and connect with others as we evolve.