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Apologies in the age of #SorryNotSorry

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a Contributing Writer at the Jewish Journal. She previously was the Founding Editor at GrokNation.com. She is an experienced freelance writer and consultant specializing in social media, pop culture, grief and Jewish community conversation. She is frequently sought-after as a source on social media engagement and culture, and is known as a Jewish community social influencer.

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Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz is a Contributing Writer at the Jewish Journal. She previously was the Founding Editor at GrokNation.com. She is an experienced freelance writer and consultant specializing in social media, pop culture, grief and Jewish community conversation. She is frequently sought-after as a source on social media engagement and culture, and is known as a Jewish community social influencer.

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.

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