A 2023 Column Contest grand-prize winner, Laurence Pevsner’s Sorry Not Sorry investigates why we’re sick of everyone apologizing all the time—and how the collapse of the public apology leaves little room for forgiveness and grace in our politics and culture.

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This summer, Mike Tyson will fight Jake Paul, a YouTuber more than three decades his junior. During those bonus thirty years Tyson has done much more than box. In an apt imitation of his fighting style, Tyson has been quick to pivot from movie star to podcast host to THC entrepreneur. Yes, you read that right: if you go to your local cannabis store you will likely find Mike’s Bites, a bag of weed gummies that look, purposefully and distinctly, like misshapen ears.

When I heard about Mike’s Bites and the ears, I found them both funny and unsettling. Funny because it was self-referential and unsettling because the self it was referencing was when Tyson got so uncontrollably violent he was almost sent back to prison.

In November of 1996, Mike Tyson lost the heavyweight championship in a major upset to Evander Holyfield. In June of next year, Tyson was losing to Holyfield again in the Las Vegas rematch. During the third round of the fifteen-round fight, Tyson got Holyfield into a clinch. But instead of whispering a nice compliment for a well-fought fight into his ear, Tyson chomped down and tore off a one-inch piece of cartilage from Holyfield’s right lobe and spat it out. Holyfield needed twelve to fifteen stitches to close the wound. Two minutes later, when Holyfield was cleared to return to the fight, Tyson doubled down and bit Holyfield’s left ear, removing more flesh and any doubt about his intentions.

Tyson was, of course, disqualified. He was so angry that he had to be restrained as he left the ring, while Holyfield was escorted out surrounded by security. At the time, Tyson was on probation. He’d been released from a prison in Indiana, where he’d served three of his six-year sentence. This was exactly the kind of outburst that might send him back to the slammer.

So it was no surprise when, two days later, Tyson arranged for an impromptu press conference. He was late to his own event—he kept a hundred people waiting—and then delivered the definition of a pro forma apology. “I apologize to the world, to my family, and to the Nevada State Athletic Commission that has always treated me fairly, to Judge Patricia Gifford, who knows that I am proud to be living up to the terms of my probation,” he said. “I apologize to the MGM, to Showtime, to Don King, my promoter, to my team, and to this wonderful city of Las Vegas that has hosted so many famous boxing events.”

Tyson may have claimed to apologize to “the world,” but it’s clear why Tyson apologized to these specific people and groups. As Aaron Lazare writes in On Apology, “The primary motive for this apology was to avoid punishment. Tyson directed his apology to those who had the power to punish him.” Tyson only mentions Holyfield later as an afterthought—and it’s with a caveat. “When you butted in that first round, accidentally or not, I snapped in reaction, and the rest is history.” The implication being—I bit you because you headbutted me, nothing I could do about it.

We don’t need to rely on a close reading of the apology to know Tyson wasn’t being sincere, because Tyson later copped to mendacity on Oprah. “When you apologized did you feel the apology?” she asked. “Nah, I did not,” Tyson replied. “It wasn’t sincere.” Later, Tyson and Holyfield would go on Oprah together and patch things up. Tyson didn’t really apologize to Holyfield then either, though he did commend him as a “beautiful guy” and seemed to show genuine emotion and desire to put the past behind them.

You’d think an insincere apology would’ve been meaningless to Holyfield. And initially, it was. Nor did Holyfield receive obvious justice—Tyson was not sent back to prison, he was fined only 10 percent of his earnings from the fight, and his temporary suspension from boxing was later revoked. He was just too big of a star to keep on the sidelines.

And yet, despite permanently losing a piece of himself, Holyfield decided to make the experience additive. Even before the Oprah summit, Holyfield made the choice to forgive. “At the moment, I was very angry,” he said. “But eventually, it’s all over, you realize that you gain more than you lost. The most important thing for me was to forgive, and I forgave him and I was ready to move on.”

Often when we’ve been wronged and demand an apology, what we really want is justice. An eye for an eye, an ear for an ear. And if it can’t literally be an ear, then at the very least you ought to shame yourself, we might think. I suspect one reason we are often disappointed by public apologies is that the shame an apology generates is often a poor substitute for the justice we seek. A verbal apology is a comparatively mild punishment or a meek form of reparations. In this case, we might think Holyfield had every right to want to see Tyson further fined, suspended, or sent back to jail. Holyfield might want—and perhaps deserve—money from Tyson to cover medical costs or psychological damage (even if, as Holyfield likes to say, he did make $35 million in nine minutes). The dignity a good apology would provide could help with some of this, perhaps, but it hardly seems like it would be sufficient.

While apologies are bad at delivering justice, particularly for violence, they are better at greasing the wheels for forgiveness. In this case, Holyfield didn’t need any grease. Perhaps that’s because he understood that forgiveness, strangely, can restore power back to the person who was wronged. You get to make the choice to forgive. And in doing so you not only free yourself from the incident, but you also create new, future possibilities with the person who wronged you.

If you choose not to forgive, you choose to shut that person out—from your life at a minimum, from society if you have influence. Choose to forgive, though, and the possibilities are endless. Some of those possibilities may be bad, of course—you may get wronged again—but at the very least that’s a risk you’re signing up to take.

And one of those endless possibilities might be, nearly three decades later, making serious money as business partners selling weed gummies that commemorate your moment of ignominy. “At first, [Holyfield] thought we were making fun of him, because he’s a very dignified guy,” Tyson said, per the New Yorker. “He found out the financial part of it, and he said, ‘Hey, I’m down with the program.’” Forgiveness can lead to some strange and beautiful outcomes—in this case, reparations by way of recreational drugs.