Occasionally, someone messes up badly and is then forced to apologize publicly. Which, strictly speaking, is done far too rarely anyway. But even a not insignificant number of these rare apologies are, on closer inspection, not really apologies. Often we – the recipients of these “apologies” – lack the knowledge of why an apology somehow does not sound sincere, and doubts remain about its sincerity.
Exactly this happens just with the statement titled as excuse of the former Austrian top official Christian Pilnacek, up to his suspension to 26.2.2021 highest official in the Ministry of Justice, which had come in the context of the Casinos affair and on it assigned parliamentary investigation committee into the suspicion to have passed on to him as top officials accessible information about raids and/or damaging details to persons led as accused and to have warned thereby. This led to the confiscation of Pilnacek’s cell phones in the course of a house search, the evaluation and publication of which revealed a moral picture of those involved that was not to be expected from a top official. The legitimacy of democratic institutions was called into question, civil servants, politicians and managers of state-affiliated companies were commented on in a lurid manner and, in general, behavior was presented that raised doubts about the suitability of Pilnacek and the chat participants for public service in the Republic of Austria.
Pilnacek was now forced to make an statement, but it did not sound like an apology, even if the media reported it that way. On closer inspection, it is not an apology, but a “non-apology.
1. Why am I writing about this?
And this is exactly the subject of my (German) book Sorry not sorry: The art of not apologizing, which will be published on August 12, 2021, in which I present, among other things, 40 artifices that are used in many such non-apologies. This humorous book has a serious background. I have already presented some of the tricks in another article, but here we will analyze Christian Pilnacek’s explanation.
2. Elements of an Apology
Before we look at Pilnacek’s explanation, let’s quickly go over why we need an apology, and what an honest and sincere apology should look like.
Why do we need an apology?
The authors of “When Sorry Isn’t Enough,” psychologist Jennifer Thomas and counselor Gary Chapman, cite that an apology leads to forgiveness and reconciliation.
When we apologize, we take responsibility for our behavior and seek to make amends with the person who was offended. A sincere apology opens the door to the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation.
The logic behind it is aimed at removing a mental obstacle:
The wrongful act stands like a barrier between the two people and the relationship is shattered. They cannot, even if they wanted to, live as if the wrong had not been committed.
What elements should an apology have?
American behavioral scientist David P. Boyd came up with seven sequential steps that he calls the art of a public apology:[i]
In the first two steps, one becomes aware that crap has happened and that an apology is due. In the third step, the apology should follow as quickly and immediately as possible, taking responsibility for one’s own actions (or omissions), expressing contrition, promising to make amends, and taking action to avoid such mishaps in the future.
Thus, we are equipped to understand what a sincere apology should look like.
3. Pilnacek’s Apology in the Analysis
Let us now look in detail at the ‘apology’ as it has been printed in the Austrian daily newspaper Kurier:
The first paragraph
Nothing to gloss over – statement by Christian Pilnacek
The content of private communications that have now become public, in particular those of the messages with Univ. Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Brandstetter, who is a friend of mine, about the Constitutional Court and its members is inexcusable, unjustifiable and completely inappropriate. Any attempt at an explanation must fail in view of the choice of words to be condemned.
At first glance, this paragraph sounds honest and rightly intended, but on closer inspection we recognize the impersonal form, as if Pilnacek were an uninvolved observer of a “private communication”. Also, the sentence part “….the choice of words to be condemned” instead of “...my choice of words to be condemned” is written here in impersonal form. By addressing the problem impersonally, Pilnacek shows that he does not take responsibility for his choice of words. If only because the choice of words can neither be glossed over nor explained. Not only the choice of words, but the entire attitude toward the rule of law are reprehensible here, at least not befitting a top official of the Republic of Austria. So he acts as if a more appropriate choice of words would make such strange attitudes more acceptable.
So what artifices are represented here?
The opening sentence, which refers to the private nature of the chats, is in the book of the 24. Artifice: It happened, but it was not meant for other ears and eyes.
By the way, the impersonal addressing in the apology is in my book the 5. Artifice: It happened, but not to me. According to the motto “mistakes were made, but not by me”.
The second paragraph
Let’s look at the second paragraph, and it continues in a similar tone:
I cannot explain this, if only because these repulsive words are in complete contradiction to my personality, my attitudes and to my previous and long-standing work in the service of justice. I have always been resolutely and openly opposed to any kind of hatred, racism or sexism, which is why my message to Univ. Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Brandstetter also deeply appalls me. All those whom I have hurt and offended with it, first and foremost the Constitutional Court, its Vice President and SC Dr.in Claudia Kahr, but also my family and friends I would like to ask for forgiveness. There is nothing to whitewash, but I ask to judge me more by my actions and achievements than this misconduct in the context of a private communication. I offer my utmost respect to the Constitutional Court and its members. The importance of this institution for the democratic constitutional state deserves the highest respect.
Here, too, it continues in the same tone of impersonal addressing. In the first sentence, “I can’t explain this if only because these repulsive words…” no responsibility is taken. Changing a single word can change that: “…because my repulsive words…” The whole thing is followed by a false trail, which is supposed to show what an honorable man Pilnacek actually is. The words apparently chosen by someone – are there actually speechwriters for chats? – are “in complete contradiction to my personality, my attitudes and to my previous and long-standing work in the service of the administration of justice.“
Er legt noch nach, indem er auf sein Eintreten gegen “jede Art von Hass, des Rassismus oder des Sexismus aufgetreten….” hinweist. Mit anderen Worten: das ist nicht er, er ist ja eigentlich anders. Nur: Hass, Rassismus und Sexismus manifestiert sich (auch) durch die Wahl der Worte. Als jemand, der sich dagegen engagiert, müsste es ihm besonders stark bewusst sein. Die Wortwahl muss somit ganz gezielt gewählt worden sein, weil er weiß, wo es am meisten weh tut und wie man Hass, Rassismus und Sexismus besonders gut ausdrücken kann.
In other words, that was already him, Pilnacek. These words clearly represent him. He cannot talk his way out of it. He then tries to portray himself again not only as an uninvolved party, but even as the injured party.
With the sentence “which is why my message to Univ. Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Brandstetter also deeply appalls me“. Like the snorer who wakes up and shouts “Quiet!”. Or the one who farts in a crowded elevator and is the first to turn up his nose at the rudeness of the others present.
Likewise, he is trying to draw attention to something else. It is not because of his choice of words in this private communication that we should evaluate him, but because of his other accomplishments. As if that makes a groper, whether verbal or physical, any better or excusable. Harvey Weinstein was also not spared prison just because he produced great films.
So what artifices are represented here?
Besides the already mentioned 5. Artifice: It happened, but not by me and the 24. Artifice: It happened, but it was not meant for other ears and eyes he adds the 14. Artifice: Can’t be at all, because I’m also like that [not].
He also presents himself as a victim, an injured party who was “horrified.” This is the 13. Artifice: It happened, but I am the real victim.
And then the 26. Artifice: It happened, but there are more important things, with which he points out that he should please be measured by his many other, the “important” achievements. Insults are thus implicitly expressed “unimportant”.
The third paragraph
What follows after these two paragraphs, however, is no longer a non-apology, but an all-out attack questioning the legality of the confiscation of his work cell phone. Instead of finally shutting up, he continues in exactly the same tone and with the attitude that we got to know from the chat transcripts. And contradicts itself thereby in all its arguments brought forward in the two first paragraphs that he cannot explain it, and that does not represent him correctly. The way he is now giving out is exactly the one that also occurs in the chat protocols.
Nevertheless, I must state here that the content in question of a private communication has nothing to do with the subject matter of the Ibiza Investigative Committee, even in the purely abstract. My request to separate private and other communications from those that are abstractly related to the subject of the investigation has not even been addressed by the Federal Ministry of Justice. I was also not given the opportunity to inspect the results of the review and evaluation, so that I cannot conclusively assess the accuracy and completeness of this review and evaluation.
He now begins to deflect by portraying himself as the victim of a political scandal that allegedly does not concern him, and that these private reports are not a subject of investigation. In doing so, he implies that it is somehow unlawful that his cell phones were confiscated and insinuates that it was a politically motivated action. He unjustly feels like a pawn, and the chat content as something that others would now exploit politically.
He thus goes from a text that was supposed to be an apology to one that now turns into a justification and attack. We are no longer supposed to look at the choice of words, but at the circumstances of the confiscation of his cell phones, which are questionable for him.
In this way, he uses the method described in the book as 12. Artifice: It happened, but the others take advantage of it and 13. Artifice: It happened, but I am the real victim titled artifices. And with his attack he turns to the 20. artifice: it happened only because the system is doubtful.
The final two paragraphs or The grand finale
The fact that the publication of these messages, including clearly private chats not intended for the public – contrary to their classification as “confidential” under the Information Order Act – and without prior information on my part, took place on the very day on which the oral hearing before the Federal Administrative Court on the question of my suspension took place, may make sense to those in particular who otherwise reject any influence on the independent judiciary.
Finally, it should not be forgotten that the suspicion of betrayal of the date of a house search in June 2019 was the reason for the seizure of my electronic devices; this suspicion has not been confirmed in any way according to the content of the evaluated communication.
5. Juni 2021
In the two concluding paragraphs, he again makes himself the victim of a “leak” of confidential communications, with the already familiar artifices 13 and 24 and sets about counterattacking. The latter in turn is described in the book as 35. Artifice: Start a counterattack.
What we thus have with Christian Pilnacek’s statement is – contrary to the opinions expressed in the media – in large part not an apology. It is a justification, a counterattack and a rejection of the perpetrator’s acceptance of responsibility. The statement is thus worthless because it omits important elements of an apology, and neither assumes responsibility, shows remorse, nor addresses how to avoid this in the future.