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Opinion | Can the millennial say sorry?

Millennials are concerned about ethical behaviour and often engaged with what is known as call-out culturepublicly denouncing sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of social injustice

The millennial inability to say sorry shows they don’t want to take reponsibility. Photo: iStock
The millennial inability to say sorry shows they don’t want to take reponsibility. Photo: iStock

I have drama to report. Two separate stories.

Story #1. On 28 November, acclaimed 25-year-old debut author Tomi Adeyemi tweeted an accusation that an author had tried to make profit off the name of her book Children Of Blood And Bone published in March. Except that the woman accused, whose new book is called Of Blood And Bone, is Nora Roberts, one of the world’s most successful authors, someone whose 200-plus books have spent a collective 1,000 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. A little while later Adeyemi tweeted that Roberts was kind enough to reach out and that she, Adeyemi, felt convinced that the titles came about independently and that she had apologized to Roberts. But she left the original tweet up, causing fresh confusion with every hour. A war broke out between Adeyemi’s ardent fans and the vast army of Roberts’ fans (there is a decent overlap between the two groups). The split was mostly along Young Adult vs Romance. And to a substantially lesser extent along racial lines. Adeyemi is Nigerian and Roberts is a white American. Roberts fans are inclined to say, “The Great Nora plagiarize? As if!" and roll their eyes.

Adeyemi’s brief mention of having apologized to Roberts offline is the only indication that she may be sorry. She has seemingly moved on, posting all kinds of other stuff since, including dance videos. Roberts has posted a note on her blog without naming Adeyemi so as to not further the flame wars but indicating that she was quite fed up with the situation and with Adeyemi. Last I checked, the war was still on.

Story #2 In Kerala, a complicated poetry plagiarism scandal broke out last week. Young writer Deepa Nishanth was accused by poet S. Kalesh of stealing his poem and publishing it in the AKPCTA (All Kerala Private College Teacher’s Association) journal with minor changes. Nishanth denied it online for two days. Then came the rumours online that (also young) activist M.J. Sreechitran had something to do with it. New posts from Nishanth and Sreechitran appeared, sort of apologizing to Kalesh and talking about life and inkpots but not really admitting to plagiarism. Somewhere along the way Nishanth admitted that she had published a poem that wasn’t hers but was given to her by an unnamed friend, who is now assumed to be Sreechitran. Sreechitran meanwhile denied everything. And a fresh story emerged from another writer Vaisakhan, who said that Sreechitran had plagiarized another poem from him in the past and accused Vaisakhan of plagiarizing the poem from him. Then eventually, many days later, arrived a video interview in which Nishanth actually apologizes to Kalesh, causing (presumably) relief to not just the poet but all those following the drama who, like the Roberts fans, just can’t understand why people don’t apologize or apologize properly.

Do millennials have a problem apologizing? When actor Shia LaBeouf apologized for having plagiarized lots of things for his short film, he did it by plagiarizing other people’s apologies. Actor-writer Lena Dunham, the global representative/caricature of a certain kind of millennial, is infamous for apologizing in a recognizably half-baked, too-easy way for her endless goof-ups. So much so that there is a Dunham apology bot on Twitter (yes, LaBeouf plagiarized a Dunham apology too).

Millennials are concerned about ethical behaviour and often engaged with what is known as call-out culture—publicly denouncing sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of social injustice. But proponents of call-out culture are often disinclined to litter the internet with their own sincere apologies. One could hiss, “Hypocrites!" and move on. But there seems to be more going on than old-fashioned hypocrisy. Like LaBeouf, once caught in the wrong, they display a deep inability to accept that they have to now live with a blotted copybook (a ridiculously dated phrase that I would like to replace; help me, reader). The millennial desire to move on without apologizing is an embodiment of the belief that the timeline and tide waits for no one and nothing, particularly uncomfortable, contradictory feelings.

A Delhi-based writer, who is not a millennial, when goaded likes to tell some epic tales of living with one. “The grand finale was my moving out and then hearing from others that a couple months later my young roomie left the apartment trashed, rent lapsed, maid unpaid and so on. I felt partly responsible, so at some point I called our former landlady and apologized and got a solid earful from her. Why did I feel compelled to say sorry!" And her young roommate? “Whenever we bumped into each other afterwards, she seemed completely unbothered and I felt embarrassed. Obviously there is something wrong with me," she says.

How can you atone if the thought of having made a mistake is unfathomable? If the thought that you are wrong, not someone else, not the whole non-woke universe, is one you cannot live with? If you would rather leave town/quit your job/ delete your Twitter account than face up to the misery that you screwed up?

Ghosting is a particular form of this, of avoiding the apology, avoiding that misery. Disappearing without any explanation can only happen if your inability to live with discomfort trumps other people’s feelings.

My Mumbai-based artist friend, who is deeply interested in the nature of the apology, thinks the millennial inability to apologize is also a symptom of a generation that is terrified to grow up. “They don’t want to take responsibility but want their inheritance now."

And if you are in perpetual search of the tax-free inheritance, the risk-free risk, then what does that do for your romantic life and creative life? Paralysis, is my unhappy guess.

If you never want to be witnessed falling, then it is hard to jump.

Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.

She tweets at @chasingiamb

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