Thursday, January 17, 2019

Should She Apologize?

It will sound like a refreshing change of pace in these parts, but I am happy to report today on some advice offered by New York Times columnist Kwame Anthony Appiah. His advice is thoughtful and serious. It runs counter to therapy culture principles. And he is right.

In the world of ethics, the question is intriguing. Should she apologize for something that happened five decades ago? Should she look up the man she harmed and say that she is sorry for harming him?

It’s one thing to apologize for a present-day dereliction. It’s quite another to apologize for something that happened decades ago. What do you think?

Here is the letter:

I am in my mid-70s and have been happily married to my second husband for 40 years. When I was in college, I met a young man who was smart and funny. We each had difficult childhoods and were lonely. Our loneliness drew us together, and ultimately we fell in love and married. I was too immature and confused and should not have married, but for all intents and purposes, we were happy. He was a good person and treated me well.

We were married for a little over two years when I decided that I did not want to be married anymore. I really blindsided him, literally walking into our apartment one day and saying that I wanted to leave him. He was surprised and hurt but did not pressure me to stay. I told him it might not be permanent, and we stayed friends for a while, and it was during this period that, I realize in retrospect, I treated him especially badly.

For a long time I have felt that I would like to apologize. He didn’t deserve the pain that I caused him. The breakup was not due to anything he did or didn’t do. It was all me. Because he has a public presence, I know how to reach him, but I am concerned that an apology after all these years would not be appropriate. It might cause him more pain, and I certainly don’t want that.

Is an apology always the ethical choice? Given that I have no contact with anyone from that period in my life, I have no way of knowing how he might feel about hearing from me. Name Withheld

To which Appiah says no. Apology is designed to repair a relationship. You take responsibility for a fault in order to restore order. Obviously, apology requires a degree of self-abnegation and might even require a period of withdrawal… but the goal and purpose is to neutralize the effects of bad behavior. And to re-establish a relationship.

Thus, Appiah concludes, apologizing five decades after the fact will accomplish nothing. It will merely revive the bad feelings surrounding the initial divorce. She is not interested in re-establishing a relationship with someone who undoubtedly does not want to be reminded of his time with her. It will, Appiah says, cause more harm than good. 

He writes:

Apologies are centrally about repairing relationships. You may think it’s very unlikely that this man will want to re-establish the relationship, and if that’s so, the only serious effect of the apology will be to cause him whatever distress might come from revisiting a painful episode or whatever relief might come from your “it’s not you, it’s me” assurances. Neither the fact that, in some sense, you owe him an apology nor the fact that apologizing might make you feel better settles the matter of what you should do. In short, the answer to your question is: No, apology isn’t always the ethical choice. When an apology from the remote past would simply unearth anguished memories, the right choice may be reticence.

I would only add that the man she wronged now has a public presence. Is she looking to cash in on his fame? Is she looking to publicize an incident that will increase her own public presence?

Whatever her motivations, a severely late apology does not accomplish anything. It is more than refreshing to see a columnist recommend silence. It is better yet to see him telling a woman to keep her feelings to herself. If she wants to marinate in her own shame, she can. Nothing will be gained by sharing.  Hats off to Appiah for offering a thoughtful and correct response. In the world of advice columns it does not happen all that often.


Sam L. said...

Beats the heck out of Polly's answers.

Anonymous said...

Any normal person reading her letter would see it as an excuse for communicating with this guy. Polly, however, would have advised her to apologize, and possibly even visit the guy to do it.

Uppsala said...

She left because she was unhappy. Her vows meant nothing.

You're aware of MGTOW? This is why.