Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Unbearable Anguish of Apology

Heard enough apologies?

What happens when you take a perfectly respectable public ritual-- like apology-- and hand it over to a bunch of celebrities? They use it and overuse it, to the point where it is drained of its meaning.

Such were the observations of Eric Felten and Rabbi Irwin Kula. For Felten's article, link here. For Rabbi Kula's link here.

The term apology comes to us from the ancient Greek courtroom. There, after a defendant had been accused of a crime, he would have the opportunity to offer a defense against the prosecutor's charges. That defense was called an "apologia." Later, the term morphed into Christian apologetics, which was a branch of theology devoted to defending the faith.

Nowadays, in what must certainly count as a great intellectual reversal, apology is normally used as an admission that one's behavior has been indefensible.

This form of apology is widely used in what are called shame cultures. These cultures use the sanction of public shaming as a means to promote good behavior. Shaming was basic to the culture of early America.

As Felten explains, rather glibly: "Early colonial America was big on dealing with misbehavior through shame-- the old scarlet letter routine. And abasing oneself through the humiliation of making a public apology was a prime punishment."

Felten suggests that the practice fell out of favor because people grew cynical about the ability of apology to change behavior. He does not believe that Serena Williams will change her behavior because she apologized for her outburst at the U. S. Open.

This is a step too far. Felten is observing that once apology falls into the hands of celebrities it loses its power and its meaning.

Nevertheless, when it comes to changing behavior the practice of apology is central to twelve step programs. These programs use shaming as a means to change behavior. And they are far more effective than psychotherapies that rely on guilt-trips.

Nonetheless, Rabbi Kula offers a good observation of celebrity apologies: "As we watch these apologies, whether offered as tearful ramblings, pro forma admissions, or awkward justifications we inevitably feel that these apologies are cheap and facile."

He continues: "These celebrity apologies are eroding an already deteriorating public culture as they are turning one of the most important human virtues-- the ability to seek and grant forgiveness-- into public relations stunts."

Perhaps this slew of empty apologies brings a saving grace: we now have a better chance to understand what is involved in the ritual of apology.

Rabbi Kula refers to the 12th century sage, Maimonides, to outline the four steps that must be part of a sincere apology.

First, recognition of what we did wrong.
Second, regret for having done it, accompanied by a resolve never to do it again.
Third, repair the damage and make amends.
Fourth, reconciliation following forgiveness.

The first sign of a sincere apology is its emotional accompaniment: unbearable anguish. If you do not feel such anguish, you do not really understand your mistake. A person who is relaxed about an apology does not get it.

More importantly, an apology contains an implicit or explicit vow never to do it again. If you apologize for beating your wife, and then beat her again, your apology becomes insincere. For having gone back on your word you deserve never again to be trusted.

Serial apologizers are frauds. That is why we tend to feel discomfort when we see too many public apologies.

Repairing the damage and making amends are more difficult. When a public figure makes a grievous error, he repairs the damage, makes amends, and vows not to do it again, by resigning his position.

When you take responsibility, you voluntarily pay a very high price. If you do not pay more than an emotional price your apology becomes insincere.

For those who do not have high offices to resign from, apology should be accompanied by a temporary withdrawal from society. If you understand the meaning of apology you know that it should be accompanied by a time of self-isolation.

The simple act of apology, in and of itself, does not wipe the slate clean. It is the first step on the path to recovery.

Take an example.In 1993 Attorney General Janet Reno ordered an assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. The result was a holocaust that killed dozens of men, women, and children.

Clearly, Reno was not culpable in the strict legal sense of the word. She had not started the fire. Yet, she had given the order that led to the catastrophe, so she bore responsibility.

While testifying before a Congressional committee Reno later declared that she accepted full responsibility for what had happened. Anyone who remembers that statement would agree that she seemed to be suffering unbearable anguish.

But then, she did not resign. She simply went back to work. However heartfelt her apology appeared, it was insincere. It may mean that she has a character flaw, but it may also mean that she was really covering for someone else.

While I certainly agree with Felten and Rabbi Kula that celebrity apologies cheapen the exercise beyond recognition, I would also assert that the misuse of the ritual by high public officials has an even more deleterious effect.

Most people, I continue to hope, do not take their moral cues from celebrities.

And, of course, sometimes celebrities get it right. No one is going to excuse Kanye West's interruption of Taylor Swift's award acceptance speech last week, but later in the show Beyonce did her best to make amends for his rudeness by inviting Swift back on the stage to finish her speech.

Beyonce's gesture was elegant and ethical. She did not have to do it. Strictly speaking, it was not her responsibility to make amends for someone else's mistake.

And yet, because West's outrage was ostensibly committed in her name-- to her horror, we must say-- she must have felt a need to distance herself from it definitively.

Beyonce reminded us that some celebrities do have good character and do know how to do the right thing.

Clearly, reconciliation and forgiveness can only happen with time. When you apologize you are asserting that your offending action was not true to your character.

But it takes time to forget truly bad behavior. Only a series of virtuous actions can restore your good name.

Thus, reconciliation and forgiveness take time.

Of course, most celebrities do not make a living based on their good names. If they are actors their work involves pretending to be someone they are not. If they want to be noticed in the tabloids they will have to act out in public.

When someone who is far from being reputable makes a showy declaration of his good character we are right, in most cases, to look askance and to refuse to accept the apology.

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