A mistake is made. A celebrity or a company makes a misstep, or even acts outside the law, and then the apology statement is made. The apology can take many forms.

In 2017, Louis C.K., one of my very favorite comedians and artists was accused of exposing himself to five female comics. In response, he apologized.

“These stories are true….the power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly.”
Louis C.K. , November 10th, 2017

Just last week, video emerged showing employees at Fair Oaks Farms, a place my family and I like to visit while traveling through Indiana for delicious grilled cheese and their quaint country store, of seriously mistreating the animals in their care. In response, the CEO apologized.

“I am disgusted by and take full responsibility for the actions seen in the footage, as it goes against everything that we stand for in regards to responsible cow care and comfort.”
Fair Oaks Farms CEO Mike McCloskey, June 4, 2019

In 1985, Coca-Cola changed their century old recipe, and introduced something called New Coke. Coca-Cola drinkers worldwide erupted in protest, and demanded the return of the Coca-Cola they knew and loved. In response, the CEO apologized.

“The simple fact is that all the time and money and skill poured into consumer research on the new Coca-Cola could not measure or reveal the deep and abiding emotional attachment to original Coca-Cola felt by so many people.”
June 4, 2019 Coca Cola CEO Donald Keough, July 11, 1985

Mistakes and missteps are bound to happen. Some of these missteps are serious, they are in violation of the law, and they cause real harm to people. Some missteps are just poor decisions, business is affected, and a pathway has to be found back to customer trust and profitability.

It has almost become like a trope. The mistake is made (or misdeed is discovered), the apology is made, the public debate happens on the tv news and social media, and eventually life returns to normal. Coca-Cola continues to be enjoyed around the world. People continue to fly United Airlines, even though they injured a passenger while forcibly removing him from a flight. Alec Baldwin continues to be a popular actor, even though he has misbehaved on airplanes, been arrested for losing his temper, and has been recorded yelling at his kids. So where is Louis CK? Will we ever eat at Fair Oaks Farms again?

The videos of the animals being mistreated at Fair Oaks Farms are heartbreaking, and the way Louis CK treated women is deplorable and disgusting…and yet I still wonder if there is ever a way back.

Since the news about Louis CK broke in 2017, he has seemingly lost everything. The movie he had just made was never released. He was involved with a number of television shows, all of which he had to leave, and his standup comedy career stopped cold. The few “surprise” stand-up gigs he has had since then have left some people in the audience feeling powerless and angry. They did not choose to be in the same room with someone who had been accused of sexual misconduct.

What Louis CK did was wrong, and yet I can’t help but to wonder if there should be a way back for him. The way the animals were treated at Fair Oaks Farms was wrong, but is there nothing they can do that can assure my family and I that, if we were to return, we are supporting an ethical organization that treats their animals well?

Since the news about Fair Oaks Farms broke, the employees caught mistreating the animals were fired and criminal charges are pending. Fair Oaks has agreed to regular, unannounced animal welfare audits by an outside organization. Any place where humans interact with animals on their farm will be live streamed on their website 24 hours a day. Employees will go through enhanced training on how to treat animals, and on what to do if they see animals being mistreated by other employees.

The mistake by Coca-Cola over 30 years ago now seems pretty benign. Nobody was hurt. They simply changed a recipe. And yet, it was the simple change of a beloved recipe that caused so many people to get so angry, almost as if someone was hurt. Coca-Cola apologized, and when accused of releasing New Coke just as a way to boost sales for the original Coke, they released one of the great PR statements of all time. “We’re not that smart, and we’re not that dumb.”

In his seemingly heartfelt statement from November, 2017, Louis said “I will now step back and take a long time to listen.” And that’s what he did. Now there are reports that he is planning his comeback. Should there be a way for this talented comedian to earn his living doing what he seems to love, and what is so gifted at? Is his apology enough, or should he just find somewhere to hide away for the rest of his life?

The wisdom to know the answer to this question, this question of how someone can adequately pay for a mistake, be it a corporate misstep or a personal crime, eludes me. Yet I have to think that, except for the most heinous crimes and mistakes, there should be some way to journey back. Some way to apologize. Some way to move forward.

I guess the decision is up to to each of us individually. We need to be comfortable listening to a comedy bit, eating a grilled cheese, or drinking a Coke. The offending company or celebrity is accountable to each of us, but we are accountable to no one else if we decide to forgive, or not. That is our decision, and our decision alone.

However, I do think it’s fair that we have a certain set of universal expectations as to what needs to happen if we are ever expected to consider forgiving in the first place.

  1. There needs to be action beyond the apology. We need to know you feel bad, but we also need to know what is being done to rectify the situation.
  2. If you made a mistake, we need to know that you know that it’s not just about you. Your actions have effected those who you directly harmed, and they affected me. I am hurt. I am disillusioned. How will you demonstrate that you know that?
  3. We need time. We are not going to hear your apology one day, and give you our trust in return the next day. I don’t know how long that it. That is up to us.

Maybe one day I will find myself back at Fair Oaks Farms, or I will find myself watching Louis CK. That will be my difficult decision to make, and my decision alone. What decision will you make?

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