Some thoughts appear below the fold on the apology:
When I wish to say “I apologise” in German, I say “Entschuldigen Sie mich.” Adding the prefix “ent-” assigns transitivity to the noun “Schuld,” which is transformed into a verb by the suffix “-igen.” Typically, “ent-” performs the same function as the prefix “dis-” in English, namely, the removal of a state. Wrapped up within the phrase “Entschuldigen Sie mich” is a wonderful illustration of why I think German is such a beautiful language: it is so wonderfully ambiguous.
Take, for example, the fact that the state (“Schuld”) that “ent-” is supposed to divest the agent from has two separate but inter-related meanings. Josh Dubler writes in a superb essay that “…what is revealed by the open secret of the German homophone, guilt (Schuld) is but the moralization of debt (Schuld), and as such is the narrativized justification for the creditor’s license…” – a license, I should add, to issue some repayment from the debtor.
So, when we apologise for something, we’re looking to neutralise an imbalance of some kind. The original harm creates an imbalance of power that the performance of an apology will reverse, and that can then be neutralised through the final stage of the process (forgiveness). There are three steps, each of which is inscribed into the ledger in red or black ink based on the currency of power: 1) harm, 2) apology, 3) forgiveness.
I submit that the power imbalance created either from an apology or from, say, the original harm manifests as a kind of shame visited upon one of the parties. And because shame intensifies over time – it accumulates interest – so does that power imbalance grow in the absence of forgiveness. Shame is both self-reinforcing, and disintegrative. Without forgiveness, the power imbalance of apology amplifies until it’s neutralised entirely.
I worry often about the failure on the part of many, especially those whom I otherwise consider to be very conscientious people, to recognise the obligations and responsibilities of the forgiver to write off the debt. I’ll give a few examples:
- Michael Moynihan wrote last month about the emptiness of Jonah Lehrer’s apology for having committed “a real quantifiable offense” – the plagiarism of his own work, recycled into new articles. He argued rather preposterously that it was precisely because Lehrer’s infraction was identifiable that the apology couldn’t have been sincere; Moynihan argued that Lehrer’s apology was little more than a plea to re-enter the fold of glitterati – he simply “wanted back in.”
- Similarly excoriating insinuations of insincerity were leveled a few years ago at the journalist Johann Hari who, after having been outed for (among other things) recycling material from press releases as new material, returned his Orwell Prize and made a full-throated public apology. It was met with the same sanctimonious response of the ne’er-do-wrongs. Like Lehrer, Hari is struggling to refurbish his career in journalism (and doing a superb job of it, if you ask me).
- Andrew Gelman has become something of a policeman of plagiarism in the academic statistical community – although he disavows the label – and he has taken numerous academics to task for errors that range from the honest to the indisputably egregious. A worthwhile endeavour, to be sure, and I applaud him for it. Nonetheless, I’m troubled by the reaction of people who fail to take public apologies at face value and move on.*
In all three examples, apologies have been used by the prospective forgiver to exploit a power imbalance. Sure, past offenders might warrant extra scrutiny for fear of future instances of recidivism; the presumption that recidivism is inevitable, however, impedes people’s willingness to forgive at all.
The point here isn’t really about plagiarism or professional dishonesty. Those just happen to be some examples that popped to mind. Rather, the point here is about the exploitative power imbalance that’s endemic to the apology, and the inability among many to think hard about the essential role that forgiveness should play in restoring healthy power equality. It’s that inability, as far as I can tell, that makes it so hard for people to apologise in the first place. And I wish that wasn’t the case.
It’s empowering when someone who has made a mistake acknowledges they’ve done something wrong. It feels good when someone prostrates themselves at your feet and awaits your judgment. But that superiority we enjoy once that happens is self-reinforcing and disintegrative, and it’s bought with the coin of the apologiser’s shame. We’d do well to be frugal with that credit.
*Let me just be clear about my opinion of Gelman’s contribution. He’s been clear before that 1) he recognises the tricky moral terrain of apology, and 2) that ideally the approach should look a little like this:
“Making mistakes is human; what’s important (if the goal is to get closer to the truth) is to recognize those mistakes and move forward.”
But sometimes, as in the PS comments in posts such as this one, I’m not sure how receptive he really is to apology. I’m also not sure whether he recognises how much he’s contributing to the problem that apologetic offenders can’t wipe the slate clean and “move forward” as he hopes they should. And that’s really the larger problem that this post is actually about.
Finally, to end on a lighter note, Bill Hicks sees the value of timely forgiveness: