Apologies in the age of #SorryNotSorry

By now, just about everyone knows the art of hashtags — a word or phrase preceded by a # sign used either to tag a conversation so people can easily follow it, or as a sarcastic and often deeply truthful commentary on the statement that had just preceded it. Some hashtags resonate deeply in public consciousness for various reasons, such as #BringBackOurGirls or #BlackLivesMatter, which have helped shape social media activism. Others, such as #FirstWorldProblems, are meant as wry commentary, in this case to acknowledge that what is being complained about is a problem only for the privileged, and not so important when you consider other “real” problems in the world. 

One hashtag on the rise is #sorrynotsorry, a phrase meant to indicate that the apology — the “sorry” — comes because it’s expected of you, but not necessarily because you mean it. Invoking the #sorrynotsorry can be a proudly defiant move when, for example, pointing out something unpopular or in poor or questionable taste that you know will upset other people (real example: “not all babies are cute #sorrynotsorry”). In such a case, it serves as a righteous proclamation that the writer feels justified — perhaps even righteous — for speaking up.

For me, however, #sorrynotsorry reminds me of the High Holy Days. 

Back in yeshiva day school (elementary school through the end of high school), our teachers made it clear that even more important than clearing your record with God in that big Book of Life was making sure you were square with the people around you. So, every fall, students ran around to everyone — their closest friends, mortal enemies and even acquaintances — demanding forgiveness. “Do you moychel [forgive] me?” they’d ask, fueled by a pedagogically imparted imperative to seek forgiveness before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, arrived. If someone wouldn’t forgive you, you had to ask him or her again. After asking for the third time, if you still weren’t forgiven, the onus was no longer on you. 

This “Do you forgive me?” exercise drove me crazy — yes, in part because everyone suddenly inserted a Hebrew word in the middle of an English sentence, but also because it was thrown off casually, and — no matter what high school torture the asker had inflicted on you before that question — you had to say yes. Then the person you’d just “forgiven” would be back to torturing you by lunchtime. When my high school enemy — who regularly made me feel bad about myself — asked me cavalierly, “Do you moychel me?” my mouth said yes because I was expected to, and my heart said, “No, no, a million times no.” Technically, she was saying “sorry” in that moment, but when she went back to insisting that I allow her to cheat off of me during an exam later that same day, her actions said, “Not sorry.” And because this happened annually, my “I forgive you” was really an “I don’t forgive you.” So even though “sorrynotsorry” is now an Internet term, its roots go much deeper, back into all those times we’ve said sorry because it was expected, not because we had considered our actions and realized we were wrong.

Think about the last time you asked someone to forgive you for something you’d done. Or about the last time someone came to you and said, “I’ve been thinking about that thing I said, and I’m really sorry. I hope you can forgive me.” It rarely happens. And I can’t help but blame “Do you moychel me?” a lesson without depth, an educational imperative that didn’t trust us to process the active ideas and intentions behind forgiveness. It became a joke, thereby becoming the opposite of what “sorry” was supposed to accomplish.

In the Internet space and in life, an attitude of #sorrynotsorry undermines the practice of cheshbon ha-nefesh (taking an accounting of our souls), of examining our actions and trying to modify our behavior. It’s an apology backtrack, a proud proclamation that the rules of society don’t apply to us — we’re right, so we shouldn’t have to apologize, not to anyone. 

What might have happened if any of those kids when formulating that question with their throats, tongues and lips had actually put their brains, hearts and souls into it? Maybe it is a lot to ask from children or Twitter users. But I believe there’s a way to explain that “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” are phrases that accompany, but don’t replace, the imperative to plumb the depths of your soul, not just because you’ve been told to, but as part of an overall annual (or more frequent) emotional inventory. 

Perhaps I’m being unkind to my teachers, about whom I will definitely think during the appropriate space in the Al Chet confessional prayers on Yom Kippur. But since we’re speaking of Al Chet, it’s worth noting that this litany of sins we confess and beat our breasts about are a confessional between God and us. Perhaps our teachers’ approach was more about giving us the other half of that recitation: getting us in the habit of speaking words intended to connect us with other people, creating a muscle memory of sorts. Then, when we became adults, we’d know the script and speak the words with intention and contrition. Maybe it was an unsung success; there are likely a good number of us who do just that. 

When words are hollow, they nevertheless contain a space of potential at their center. It’s up to us to take the words requesting forgiveness, consider them seriously and speak our lines with intention so that “sorry” means something deep and true, something that would never be followed by “not sorry.” 

Esther D. Kustanowitz, a contributing writer to the Jewish Journal, is a writer, editor and consultant with nearly two decades of experience as a Jewish nonprofit professional. She is currently the editorial director of GrokNation.

Your Letters

Political Correctness

Jane Ulman’s attempt to deconstruct the story of Purim is another revolting exercise in political correctness (“Viva Vashti,” March 5).

Those who really care about the plight of women need to concentrate their energies on dealing with some very horrific realities: There are countries where women are enslaved — both as labor slaves and sex slaves, killed at the whim of a family member, denied the most basic human rights and even brutally mutilated. Except for a few lonely and courageous voices, there is very little protest over these heinous situations.

Oops, I forgot. Forgive me. Please don’t call the politically correct thought police! We are not supposed to be “judgmental” about other cultures; we are only allowed to trash our own Bible and our own sanctums.

Rabbi Louis J. Feldman, Van Nuys

Jewish Exceptionalism

For more than 60 years, Jewish voting patterns have defied one of the rules that govern most voters: People vote for their own economic interests.

The Los Angeles Times exit poll still shows Jewish exceptionalism. Looking at Proposition 56, a measure to lower from 66 percent to 55 percent the majority needed to pass tax bills, we find strong evidence of Jewish exceptionalism. Forty-seven percent of Jews voted for Proposition 56, compared to: 33 percent of Anglo Catholics, 42 percent of Latino Catholics, 27 percent of white Protestants, 41 percent of black Protestants and 35 percent of Asians. Jews are still more willing than other communities to pay for government programs to help others.

The economic self-interest rule of American politics seems to be trumped by an older Jewish rule: “There will never cease to be needy people in your land, which is why I command you: Open your hand to the poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11).

Rabbi Allen S. Maller, Temple Akiba of Culver City

Both Sides

Thank you for publishing William S. van der Veen’s letter to the editor, “Gaza Withdrawal” (March 5). I appreciate that you print both sides of an argument and feel that this higher standard which you set for yourself makes for a more educated public. Once again, thank you.

Dick Wrigley, via e-mail

Carin Davis

I have been reading Carin Davis’ columns all year. I greatly admire her writing style and use of humor. Carrie Bradshaw has nothing on her. Keep up the good work.

Jackie Taus, via e-mail

Different Reasons

There is a difference between Queen Esther marrying a non-Jew and a Jewish person nowadays intermarrying (“Keeping Jews in the Flock,” March 5). Esther was on a mission to save the Jews at that time. A Jew nowadays who intermarries does it for personal reasons.

Name Withheld Upon Request, Los Angeles

Retraction Sought

You owe an apology to me, my children, friends and associates (“What Jews Need to Know About Jesus,” Feb. 20). Since I attempt to be observant, I suppose my family is what is called “ultra-Orthodox.” Without sources, Jack Miles indicts all of us who, he alleges “called for the execution of Yitzhak Rabin.”

I suggest a prominent retraction at your earliest opportunity so that I can continue reading your paper and recommending it to others.

David J. Leonard, Los Angeles

Editor’s Note:

Jack Miles’ only point with regard to the murder of Yitzhak Rabin was that some Israelis applauded the deed and others decried it. The label applied to those who applauded it was a secondary matter and could have been left out altogether.

That said, in the ever-changing political landscape of Israel, not all of the ultra-Orthodox are also ultranationalist, but some have been. Charedim (black hats, Chasidic communities) are ultra-Orthodox. Chardalim (knitted yarmulkes, settler communities) are in general both ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist. The two groups are distinct, but some of their views overlap.

In retrospect, Jack Miles’s reference to “Israelis who called for the execution of Yitzhak Rabin and who applauded Yigal Amir when he did the deed” would have been more accurate had he not identified them by any label or else characterized them as either “ultranationalist” or “ultra-Orthodox, ultranationalist.”