Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Persistence of the Bad Male Apology
Advocates for survivors of sexual assault say statements like Tyson's are rarely about apologizing to alleged victims.
On Saturday, celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson published a lengthy Facebook post responding to multiple sexual misconduct allegations: One that surfaced earlier that week, claiming that he'd made inappropriate advances to a female production assistant; another that he'd groped a woman during a photo-op nearly a decade ago; and a third, that had been hanging over him for some time, an allegation that he'd drugged and raped a female classmate in graduate school.
The post, which he titled "On Being Accused," goes into the particulars of his encounters with each accuser, bookended by an introduction and, later, an "overview," in which Tyson laments that he and other men are "presumed to be guilty by the court of public opinion" and ruined by emotions that "bypass due process."
Buried in these posts are tepid near-apologies. Tyson says one allegation against him which took place after a conference in 2009, from Katelyn Allers, an associate professor at Bucknell University, had been the result of a misunderstanding: Whereas Allers had found Tyson's physical inspection of the Pluto tattoo on her shoulder—which she says involved him putting his hands up her dress—a violation of her "bodily autonomy," Tyson said he'd only been interested in getting a better look at the tattoo.
"That was never my intent and I’m deeply sorry to have made her feel that way," Tyson writes. "Had I been told of her discomfort in the moment, I would have offered this same apology eagerly, and on the spot."
In describing a second allegation from the summer of 2018, Tyson again reassures readers that, had he known he'd made someone uncomfortable, he'd have apologized "on the spot." The alleged incident involves Tyson inviting Ashley Watson, a former production assistant on his show, to wine and cheese at his home after work, where she says he made unwanted sexual advances toward her. Tyson says she later told him the evening had made her uncomfortable, at which time he'd "apologized profusely."
"I assured her that had I known she was uncomfortable, I would have apologized on the spot, ended the evening, and possibly reminded her of the other social gathering that she could attend," Tyson wrote. "She nonetheless declared it her last day, with only a few days left of production."
And the third allegation against Tyson comes from Tchiya Amet, a woman who attended grad school with him in the 1980s, who says Tyson drugged and raped her during that time. For this Tyson offers no apology, but rather suggests her account is the result of a "false memory."
Such is the state of the male apology, a phenomenon that's emerged with the rise of the #MeToo movement. According to its critics, the male apology—by which I mean, very specifically, men's response to allegations of misconduct—is characterized, first and foremost, by a lack of any genuine remorse.
Last year, multiple outlets published year-end roundups of the worst apologies of 2017, and, by way of summary, Vox writer Anna T. Donahue called the year's male apologies an "utter failure." Among those to receive mention in these critiques was Louis CK, who, while admitting that his accusers were telling the truth, said the source of his power over them was derived from their admiration for him. Kevin Spacey used his public statement of apology to come out as a gay man. Harvey Weinstein said he came of age during a different time, when "all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different." Chef and restaurateur Mario Batali signed off his apology, which he sent in an email newsletter, with the suggestion that his readers try his recipe for pizza dough cinnamon rolls.
"The intention of these public statements is never to apologize to the victim," Sage Carson, an advocate from sexual assault survivor advocacy group Know Your IX, tells Broadly. "It's always to explain to the world why they should be forgiven or why they're in the right."
The trend persists, and without any apparent improvements, according to Carson. She notes that Tyson's apology shares some noticeable qualities with its antecedents. Like CK and Batali, Carson says, Tyson finds opportunities to tout his achievements. He talks about his "professional history with the demotion of Pluto" when addressing the groping allegation against him, and mentions the "grueling adventure-marathon" that was finishing astrophysics graduate school. And then he uses these successes, Carson adds, to tear down his alleged victims, whom he seemingly blames for his alleged indiscretions.
"The apology shouldn't surpass the stories of victims coming forward."
The woman with the Pluto tattoo who accused him of groping her upper arm and shoulder? She could've told him of her discomfort "in the moment," Tyson says. The woman who felt uncomfortable during a wine and cheese night? She showed no indication of being uncomfortable during their "long conversation," which he says "had been in the same vein as all other conversations [they'd] ever had." And Tyson makes sure to point out that the woman who says she'd been drugged and raped by him dropped out of graduate school.
"Every 'male apology' is really a 'man-splaination' of misogynistic culture, that makes women feel shame for feeling uncomfortable by unwanted sexual behavior," Toni Van Pelt, the president of the National Organization of Women, wrote in an email. "Brave women have come forward to tell their truth and the impact their experience has had on their careers and lives. We must believe women."
Aside from the ways in which apologies from accused assailants can victim-blame, function as press releases for the accused's personal and professional triumphs, and, conspicuously, be absent of any genuine, or at least explicit, apology, Van Pelt and Carson agree one of the most insidious effects of these public apologies is their erasure of victims' stories.
"Tyson’s post on being accused was not an 'apology'—it was a long winded attempt to justify his inappropriate behavior towards women," Van Pelt says. "In publicly releasing a denial of sexual misconduct allegations, Tyson has made this conversation about him—it is not about him."
"We have to not give as much coverage to these responses than we do to the survivors," Carson adds. "We shouldn’t be impressed or fall into the narrative that these are accomplished men and we should believe them because of that. The apology shouldn't surpass the stories of victims coming forward."