Definition and Examples of Apologia in Rhetoric

The Art of Damage Control

Bill and Hillary Clinton at the start of the Clinton Impeachment trial
Former President Bill Clinton with his wife and politician Hillary Clinton at his impeachment trial in the 1990s, during which he used apologia.

David Hume Kennerly / Getty Images

In classical rhetoric, communication studies, and public relations, an apologia is a speech that defends, justifies, and/or apologizes for an action or statement. Its plural form is also "apologia." The term is an adjective, meaning apologetic, and it is also known as a speech of self-defense. Apologia comes from the Greek words for "away from" and "speech."

Definition and Origin

Merriam-Webster notes that the term apologia was "popularized by (19th-century English theologian and poet) J. H. Newman in Apologia Pro Vita Sua, his defense of his conversion from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism ... (and it is) an apology or formal defense of an idea, religion, etc." However, Aristotle used the term two millennia before Newman. In any event, since then, many public figures, including a former U.S. president and other executives, have used apologia to defend their transgressions and misdeeds.

Types of Apologia

In an article by the Quarterly Journal of Speech, linguists B.L. Ware and W.A. Linkugel identified four common strategies in apologetic discourse.

Four Strategies

  1. "denial (directly or indirectly rejecting the substance, intent, or consequence of the questionable act)
  2. bolstering (attempting to enhance the image of the individual under attack)
  3. differentiation (distinguishing the questionable act from more serious or harmful actions)
  4. transcendence (placing the act in a different context)" — B.L. Ware and W.A. Linkugel, "They Spoke in Defense of Themselves: On the Generic Criticism of Apologia." Quarterly Journal of Speech, 1973.

In other words, the offender starts by denying that they did what they did, tries to improve their own image, compares what they did (but claim they didn't do) to really egregious offenders, then gives the offense some type of context that would mitigate the transgression.

Purposes of Apologia in Rhetoric

Following are observations about apologia and examples of how individuals use the strategy to wiggle out of trouble.

"There may be several purposes for apologia rhetoric, including to explain the behavior or statement in a positive light, justify the behavior to minimize damage to image and character, or remove the topic from public discussion so that other issues may be discussed." — Colleen E. Kelley, "The Rhetoric of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton: Crisis Management Discourse." Praeger, 2001.

Kelley explains apologia as a method of deflection and damage control. That is, the purpose of apologia in many contexts is to spin a negative behavior so that it is perceived more positively, deflect discussion of the issue, and get people talking about something else.

Apologia is a way of making an argument and ensuring that your point of view is accepted. It's a rhetorical device used to defend oneself and lessen the negative effects of an offense.

"Some genres are so complex and 'high stakes' that they require a special kind of rhetorical maneuvering and critical assessment. One such animal is what Aristotle called an apologia—or what we label today as the rhetoric of self-defense, damage-control, image-repair, or crisis management ... Its indebtedness to all three genres [ deliberative, judicial, and epideictic], but its allegiance to none, makes the apologia a challenging rhetorical hybrid to create and critique." — Campbell & Huxman, 2003, pp. 293-294.

Uses in Context

It can be helpful to view apologia used in specific contexts, particularly in terms of how perceived offenders are expected to publicly flagellate themselves to show true remorse for their actions, whatever they may be.

Purging Sins

"The genre [of apologia] is a public purging of sins and a reaffirmation of the ethical norms of society 'dressed up' in theatrical proportions to bring pleasure to spectators; it is the most intimate form of secular discourse. Success in this arena requires a 'let it all hang out (remorse, pride, outrage)' approach. The visual media are especially equipped to provide the excess and exaggeration that this type of theater demands." — Susan Schultz Huxman, "Exigencies, Explanations, and Executions: Toward a Dynamic Theory of the Crisis Communications Genre." Responding to Crisis: A Rhetorical Approach to Crisis Communication, ed. by Dan P. Millar and Robert L. Heath. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004.

Huxman explains that apologia is a kind of theater, one where the offender uses any rhetorical devices available to create a performance where they are the aggrieved party, even as they try to explain away their behavior.

Saying "I'm Sorry"

"The first thing to say is I'm sorry ... We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.” — Tony Hayward, BP CEO, televised speech in Venice, Louisiana, May 31, 2010.

Hayward used apologia for the Gulf Oil spill. Note how he turned the attention toward himself and made himself seem like a victim of the situation ("I want my life back."). This deflected the attention away from the millions of gallons of oil spilled into the gulf. This is an example of transcendence, where Hayward placed this issue in a different context: The key issue of the massive spill was not the environmental disaster that ensued but the disruption to his life as a busy CEO.

President Clinton's Apologia

Perhaps no example of an apologia was quite as public and memorable as the one former President Bill Clinton gave in the late 1990s.

Monica Lewinsky Affair

"Good evening.
This afternoon in this room, from this chair, I testified before the Office of Independent Counsel and the grand jury.
I answered their questions truthfully, including questions about my private life, questions no American citizen would ever want to answer.
Still, I must take complete responsibility for all my actions, both public and private. And that is why I am speaking to you tonight.
As you know, in a deposition in January, I was asked questions about my relationship with Monica Lewinsky. While my answers were legally accurate, I did not volunteer information.
Indeed, I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.
But I told the grand jury today and I say to you now that at no time did I ask anyone to lie, to hide or destroy evidence, or to take any other unlawful action.
I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that.
I can only tell you I was motivated by many factors. First, by a desire to protect myself from the embarrassment of my own conduct.
I was also very concerned about protecting my family. The fact that these questions were being asked in a politically inspired lawsuit, which has since been dismissed, was a consideration, too.
In addition, I had real and serious concerns about an independent counsel investigation that began with private business dealings 20 years ago, dealings I might add about which an independent federal agency found no evidence of any wrongdoing by me or my wife over two years ago.
The independent counsel investigation moved on to my staff and friends, then into my private life. And now the investigation itself is under investigation.
This has gone on too long, cost too much, and hurt too many innocent people.
Now, this matter is between me, the two people I love most—my wife and our daughter—, and our God. I must put it right, and I am prepared to do whatever it takes to do so.
Nothing is more important to me personally. But it is private, and I intend to reclaim my family life for my family. It's nobody's business but ours.
Even presidents have private lives. It is time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives and get on with our national life.
Our country has been distracted by this matter for too long, and I take my responsibility for my part in all of this. That is all I can do.
Now it is time—in fact, it is past time to move on.
We have important work to do—real opportunities to seize, real problems to solve, real security matters to face.
And so tonight, I ask you to turn away from the spectacle of the past seven months, to repair the fabric of our national discourse, and to return our attention to all the challenges and all the promise of the next American century.
Thank you for watching. And good night." — President Bill Clinton, televised speech to the American public. August 17, 1998.

Clinton's apologia related to what was known as the "Monica Lewinsky Affair." In this case, Clinton initially denied having a relationship with Lewinsky, but he later recanted when confronted with physical evidence Lewinsky presented of their relationship. In his apologia, Clinton initially denied the allegations, then tried to bolster his image (" ... at no time did I ask anyone to lie ... "). He then followed by comparing the accusations about the affair to the more egregious—in his view—investigation into his previous business dealings and finished with the strategy of transcendence (recrafting the context to say "it is past time to move on" from intrusive investigations and attempts to "pry" into his personal life).

You could say that in his statement, Clinton met all four strategies that Ware and Linkugel set forth as the required parts of a true apologia.

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Apologia in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Jun. 3, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-apologia-rhetoric-1688996. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, June 3). Definition and Examples of Apologia in Rhetoric. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-apologia-rhetoric-1688996 Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Apologia in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-apologia-rhetoric-1688996 (accessed June 19, 2021).