Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Rep. Etheridge Apologized. Should We Forgive Him?

Yesterday I posted some remarks about how serious intellectuals are hard at work discrediting the Tea Party movement. Apparently, they would rather slander it than engage its ideas. Both Mark Lilla and J. M. Bernstein denounced the Tea Party as a cauldron of irrational anger, something that Lilla, for one, feared could turn into a Reign of Terror.

Within hours of my post I ran across a video of a Democratic Congressman from North Carolina, one Bob Etheridge, physically assaulting a college student because the latter had had the temerity to ask him whether he supported all of the Obama agenda.

I could not and did not resist the temptation to offer you an exhibition of real political anger, the kind you are not likely to see at Tea Party rallies... unless of course the SEIU sends some folks down to beat up on the demonstrators.

Happily enough, the Etheridge story has some legs. Upon hearing that the video of his assault had gone viral, Rep. Etheridge stepped forth and apologized. See here and here.

The question that now hangs over our ethical culture is simple: Should we accept the apology and forgive Rep. Etheridge?

Let's look at the facts. In this case, the Congressman's apologetic words: "The truth is I had a long day. I've had bad days many times. It's not a good crutch to lean on and I won't use that."

A less-than-charitable soul would remark that he did just use his long day as a crutch.

Etheridge continued: "No matter how intrusive and partisan out politics has become, this does not justify a poor response."

Is he thereby shifting the blame to our intrusive and partisan politics? Yes and no. He brings up a ready-made excuse and then says that he will not bring it up.

Both of these remarks detract from the seriousness of the apology. He is not really apologizing; he is pleading for sympathy and empathy.

He wants everyone to feel his pain; he wants everyone to feel bad for him. To some extent he has succeeded: he has elicited a somewhat understanding response from his election opponent, Renee Elmers, who said she was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Also, last night I was watching a few talk shows, on a network that is anything but a shill for the Democratic party, and I heard most commentators express some sympathy for Rep. Etheridge. They seemed to believe that we should all put ourselves in his shoes, and empathize. Which one of us has not lost it at one time or another.

After all, it must have been a long day; Democrats are seriously worried about the upcoming elections; and Etheridge did offer an apology.

Perhaps this is the therapeutically correct response to an assault, and maybe, just maybe, we have become so fully imbued with the values of the therapy culture that our first impulse is to find a way to excuse potentially criminal behavior, but, still, apology is a formal ritual. You can get it right or you can get it wrong. In neither case is the proper response... empathy.

There are times when empathy is not called for; and this is one of those times.

Getting an apology right means that you do not ask for forgiveness; you do not ask people to forget what you have done. In a true apology you hold yourself accountable. If you do not, then others are morally obliged to hold you accountable.

Holding someone else accountable does not involve empathy or sympathy.

Apology is about shame. When you apologize you express your shame for an ethical failing. That means that you are taking responsibility for your behavior and announcing, to whom it may concern, that they need not feel shame over what went wrong.

It is not even a subtle point. When you apologize, the purpose of the exercise is to assume the emotional pain for yourself and to remove any sense of responsibility from others.

When the CEO or General apologizes for an egregious error, he is saying that the fault lies with him and not his staff or his troops. They have acted honorably; he has betrayed their trust.

When you apologize what matters is: first, the words you use; second, the sincerity of your emotion; and third, your willingness to pay a severe price for your error.

You cannot be sincere when you are trying to blame others. And, as Roger Kimball notes, a politician cannot be said to have offered a real apology if you do not pay a price by retiring from politics. Link here.

If you have brought shame on yourself, shame on your party, and shame on the Congress, then the right thing to do is to withdraw your candidacy in the next election.

If, however, you adopt the approach of the therapy culture, when someone makes a mistake, even a mistake so egregious as to constitute an assault, you should take it as an opportunity for introspection, for thinking about the times when you have lost control, and for wondering why you did what you did. After all, you would not want to be judgmental, would you.

If you want to see how a culture promotes bad behavior, you cannot have a much better example than all of those who are out there showering Bob Etheridge with empathy.


Unknown said...

I found your post in relation to work I am doing on the philosophy of forgiveness, and thought I would pass along my good wishes for an analysis that rises higher than many that are ordinarily presented in response to a public apology. As a non-American I can safely ignore the political partisanship and the references to the Tea Party as fundamentally of no concern to me, though I recognize that the party affiliation of the wrongdoer is often of considerable salience for the many observers who take upon themselves the role of judges. But the real issue, as I see it, is your well put question: "Should we accept the apology and forgive Rep. Etheridge?" And yet, I can't help but wonder whether the lawmaker's apology was ever intended for the broader "we," and whether readers of the newspapers felt themselves an aggrieved party of his actions. On the surface, it seems rather peculiar to imagine that someone with no personal stake in the event should be bothered to consider the apology as though it had been intended for them. Apologies are, by definition, addressive, but as Nicholas Tavuchis has argued in his book 'Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation', the idea that an apology should be offered blindly to all and sundry is rather nearly sufficient reason for doubting that the apology aims to accomplish anything more than self-serving recuperation. Moreover, this imaginary "we" should not be expected to forgive, a point you make very clearly. There is nothing inappropriate in asking for forgiveness, of course, but there is no obligation that anyone forgive a wrongdoer for their actions. Indeed, that forgiveness derives from free will makes itself apparent precisely when forgiveness is withheld or denied. Finally, in his book simply called 'On Apology', Aaron Lazare explains that "we see courage displayed in the act of apology." I would add that this is what we would like to see rather than what we invariably see, for some apologies appear more driven by expediency than by fortitude. Nonetheless, Lazare makes a valuable point, for while certain political figures continue to decry the act of apologizing as emblematic of weakness, the real test of character is whether one can grant that one's behavior was wrong; that there were no excuses or explanations for the action; and that one is prepared to accept responsibility. I am not sure that Etheridge accomplished all of this, but I am reluctant to try to psychoanalyze him from the distance afforded me by my innocence. Anyway, a good and interesting post.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you, Gray. I think it's important to be aware of the fact that Etheridge owes a direct and personal apology to the students he assaulted.

I am not aware that his public statement included it. If not, then his act was by definition insincere.

Anonymous said...

Now, that was Gary. I understand the confusion....

Gray sez that when he was in college, if anyone, even a congressman put his hands on him like that, Gray would deliver a well-earned justifiable beating.


PS: His apology was disingenuous, so no: no forgiveness.