If you’re sorry …

Last week, Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier shocked people worldwide when he made what sounded like admiring comments about Adolf Hitler.

“He’s not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him, and I sympathize with him a little bit,” von Trier told the press while promoting his latest film at the Cannes Film Festival. “I really wanted to be a Jew, and then I found out that I was really a Nazi … because my family is German … which also gave me some pleasure. What can I say? I understand Hitler. I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely, but I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end.”

The Cannes board of directors banned von Trier from the festival (although his film Melancholia remained in competition for prizes) but not before the director attempted an apology of sorts.

“If I have hurt someone by the words I said at the press conference, I sincerely apologize. I am not anti-Semitic or racially prejudiced in any way, nor am I a Nazi.”

Wow. If. How sincere.

The “if apology” is the weakest, lamest apology possible. It is apology non grata, insult to injury and, in a sense, just as offensive as the word or act that required an apology in the first place.

If. If. If.

Those two simple letters are powerful in their ability to undercut an apology, rendering it weak, useless and utterly insincere.

I’m sorry … if.

I’m sorry if you were offended. I’m sorry if you were hurt. I’m sorry if my words upset you.

In other words, I’m sorry that you’re so thin-skinned—but really, that’s your problem, not mine.

The if apology is part of the same species classification as other offensive non-apologies, including the but apology, which is any variation on “I’m sorry, but I said or did it because I didn’t like what you said or did.”

The non-apology apology is so prevalent, it even has its own Wikipedia entry, defined as this: “The speaker … is sorry not for a behavior, statement or misdeed, but rather sorry only because a person who has been aggrieved is requesting the apology. … This apology does not admit that there was anything wrong.”

It seems to be particularly popular with celebrities and other public figures.

It’s the apology Arnold Schwarzenegger once gave after being accused of sexual harassment by more than a dozen women:

“If anyone was offended, I apologize, because that was not my intention.”

So, what exactly did he intend by all that groping?

The word if need not actually be present in a non-apology. Take, for example, Kobe Bryant’s mea culpa in April after the NBA star was caught on camera muttering a gay slur at a game:

“What I said last night should not be taken literally. My actions were out of frustration during the heat of the game, period. The words expressed do not reflect my feelings toward the gay and lesbian communities and were not meant to offend anyone.”

Translated: I’m sorry if you actually take anything I say at face value.

I’ve been guilty of the if apology on more than one occasion—that’s why I know firsthand how horrible it really is. This is the apology you grudgingly spit out when you’re not really sorry, but sorry is the only way you’re going to avoid sleeping on the couch.

It’s never acceptable to give an if apology when you truly want to make amends and move forward. When you’re seeking forgiveness, when you truly regret your words and actions, then nothing less than an unadulterated, no-excuses admission of guilt is acceptable.

Sorry is the hardest word, but it’s the only one that will do.