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What is Apologia? A Description and History of the Term

In Apologetic rhetoric on September 3, 2009 at 4:06 pm

Although the term apologia sounds similar to the more common term apology, the terms are actually distinct. The following paragraphs provide a description and short history of the term apologia.

The term apologia has been traced back to the ancient Greek root word apologos, meaning “a story” (Partridge, 1977, p. 347). It first appears in the Oxford English Dictionary as apoloyia—apo, meaning “away,” and loyia, meaning “speaking”—and is defined as a speech in defense or as a vindication of a person (as cited in Tavuchis, 1991, p. 15). In ancient Greece, such a defense was regarded as an important genre of rhetoric. Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle all describe apologia as a specific genre in which an orator defends himself or his actions against an accusation (Ryan, 1982).

Drawing on this ancient genre of rhetoric, communication scholars in the late 1960s and 1970s began to analyze the characteristics and meanings of apologia in the mass-mediated climate of the 20th century. In one of the first attempts to identify specific characteristics of apologia, Lawrence Rosenfield (1968) analyzed what he described as the mass-media apologiae. In his analysis of speeches by ex-President Harry Truman and vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon, Rosenfield argued that where similarities exist between these two examples of nationally broadcast apologetic rhetoric, “we have grounds for attributing those qualities to the situation or the genre” (p. 435). To that end, Rosenfield described four initial characteristics of mass-media apologiae: (a) they tend to be concise, decisive clashes; (b) the remarks are not limited to defensive messages; (c) mass-media apologiae include a preponderance of data in the middle of the speech; and (d) previously used arguments appear to be reused and combined into one cohesive message.

A few years later, Sherry Butler (1972) analyzed Edward Kennedy’s apologetic rhetoric using Rosenfield’s (1968) four characteristics. She concluded that the nature of apologetic rhetoric lends itself to the structure he described; however, she disagreed that future nationally broadcast apologiae would provide decisive conclusions to major controversies.

In 1973, B.L. Ware and Wil Linkugel described the genre of apologia as a “public speech of self-defense” that is issued in response to an attack on one’s character or worth (p. 274). Noreen Kruse (1977) defined apologia as a defense of one’s character in response to public criticism. Kruse (1981b) also expanded the definition to include a wide variety of mediums or methods of delivery in addition to public speeches—including materials such as novels, press releases, plays, and poems.

Halford Ross Ryan (1982) broadened the definition to include defenses of one’s policies, as well as one’s character. Hearit (1994) specified that an apologia is not the same as an apology. Although an apologia may ultimately consist of an apology, he argued that an apologia is first and foremost “a defense that seeks to present a compelling counter description…to situate alleged organizational wrongdoing in a more favorable context” (p. 115).

Finally, in developing his theory of image restoration—later termed image repair (Benoit, 2000)—William Benoit (1995a) explicitly centered the study of apologetic rhetoric around how people and organizations “reduce, redress, or avoid damage to their reputation (or face or image) from perceived wrong-doing” (p. vii). According to this perspective, when offenders offer apologiae, they are not seeking to earn forgiveness (Hearit, 2006), but rather “to avoid punishment and damage to their reputation” (Lazare, 2004, p. 134).

By situating analysis and evaluations around these aspects of apologiae rather than apologies, scholars of apologetic rhetoric focus not merely on instances in which organizations offer an admission of guilt, but more broadly on all situations in which an individual or organization has been accused of wrong-doing and offers some form of defense in response (Kruse 1981a).

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