Apologies and Forgiveness

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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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).
  3. 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:


17 thoughts on “Apologies and Forgiveness”

  1. You write of me, “sometimes, as in the PS comments in posts such as this one, I’m not sure how receptive he really is to apology.”

    I followed the link, which refers to a case from the Retraction Watch blog, describing “Adam Savine, a former graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis who was found by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) to have committed misconduct.” I did not follow all the links in this story but I hadn’t seen anything where Savine had apologized. All I saw was that he’d been caught and had admitted wrongdoing. If Savine has indeed apologized, I agree that’s a good thing to do. Not that it would mean that I’d trust the guy right away—apologizing after getting caught seems to me like a first step but only minimal—but, sure, you gotta start somewhere.

    In any case, I accept that different people will have different levels of toleration for scientific fraud. I do not think that a perpetrator who has been caught at fraud, and then admits wrongdoing, should have a presumption of innocence going forward. But I do agree that admitting wrongdoing is better than not admitting wrongdoing (even if this admission is a legal requirement of some sort), and I agree that an apology is better still. I don’t think that apology is a way of wiping the slate clean and have no particular desire to hire someone in my research group who’s committed serious fraud, but I recognize that you might feel differently in your lab. My feeling for awhile has been is that there’s often a bit too much sympathy for the cheater, and not enough for the people whom he cheated.

    Here’s what I wrote on this a couple years ago:

    Related to this is the overvaluing of so-called brilliance. Science is full of people described as brilliant, people whose Ph.D. advisors think are geniuses, get millions of dollars from NIH, etc. If someone participates in fraud, I don’t have much sympathy for the idea that he or she should be taken seriously after that. There are plenty of brilliant people out there to take their place.

    I don’t think that scientific fraud should be enough to ruin someone’s life, but I don’t think it too much to ask that they consider another line of work. I wouldn’t want a convicted embezzler to get a job working at my local bank, either.

    1. Many thanks for responding so thoughtfully.

      I also looked through the links, and like you found no explicit apology – only a catalogue of admissions of wrongdoing. Good spot, and I’ll edit the post if you think the distinction is sufficiently nontrivial. You might well disagree, but even in the absence of the words “I am sorry” or “I apologise,” I think admissions of wrongdoing, phrased appropriately, can be perfectly acceptable apologies.

      But you correctly observe that my point isn’t really about Savine; it’s about what we’re looking for before we’re willing to move past the harm. You note that in your view an apology isn’t sufficient, and I think that’s unfortunate. Obviously the ideal is that people shouldn’t make mistakes in the first place. Secondary to that, however, I also think that your desire that they change career track is a view that makes it much more difficult for people who’ve made a mistake to muster the courage to admit it. It’s the very kind of approach that I think exploits the apologiser’s shame.

      That aside, great work on the blog. I’m a big fan.

    2. I used to be a scientist, but I’m in a different line of business now: financial law. I occasionally deal with financial fraud. Some fraudsters are psychopaths, whose apologies deserve as little sympathy as their other actions. But a lot of fraudsters are in the “there but for the Grace of God go I” camp. Some of them are pretty decent young people who end up working at skeevy shops. They know that the morality of the marketplace (there is such a thing!) isn’t taught in Sunday School, and have no moral models except their senior co-workers. They can end up doing some pretty awful things without thinking that they’re doing anything worse than ordinary business–until they’re caught. I’m not sure that some large modern labs are all that different.

      I ultimately have to agree with Gelman’s concluding sentence: I wouldn’t want a convicted embezzler to get a job working at my local bank, either. But many of these embezzlers are perfectly decent honest folk, of no less than ordinary moral strength. I find it loathesome to trash decent human beings for the sake of maintaining social order. But perhaps there is no alternative.

      1. On the topic of financial law, how should corporations apologize for civil wrongs? How should these issues be addressed by courts in approving civil settlements with the SEC? Is admission of wrongdoing necessary or sufficient?

  2. Yes, we all make mistakes. To my mind, the mark of a person is how she deals with the mistakes she makes. And my take on Andrew Gelman is that he is forgiving of those who do apologize or acknowledge their lapses, but can’t abide those (and one statistician in particular) who are informed of the mistakes they have made but refuse to acknowledge them. FYI, Andrew also writes a column in The American Statistician on ethical issues in statistics.

  3. Just to make the connection with two related issues: the restorative justice movement, and truth and reconciliation processes after political conflicts. Both are very hard work, and difficult to get right, but rewarding.

    Gingerly, I raise the religious aspect. For practising Jews, as I understand it (please correct me) only God can forgive sin, and inter-human forgiveness is often seen as condoning sin. In Christianity, forgiving others is fundamental to righteousness. I’m not saying that in practice Christians are any better at forgiveness than anybody else, but it’s in the ground rules (the Lord’s Prayer). Quaere: are Buddhists closer to Christians here? Aung San Suu Kyi chairs the Burmese truth and reconciliation commission.

    1. James,

      While I’m far from expert I don’t believe your characterization of the Jewish approach is correct, depending on the category of sin. My understanding is that if, for example, I strike you, thereby committing a sin, divine forgiveness is not available untiil you forgive me. And before I can seek your forgiveness I must do what I can to compensate you for damage I have caused.

      Inter-human forgiveness of sins against oneselfthus does not condone the sin but is a prerequisite for divine forgiveness. Sinnning by failing to obey some commandments, which sins harm no other person, are divinely forgiven.

      In the spirit of the post, I will be happy to admit my error and take instruction should someone more learned correct me.

      1. A further question. It is my impression (understanding validates it too much) that in Jewish tradition or law, many apparent sins against others are actually sins against God, on the grounds that humans are created in God’s image, so that when you harm another human, you are implicitly showing lack oF respect to God. Much if not all of what we normally (at least now) think of as inter-personal morality (???) is actually grounded in respect for God. Comments?

      2. It’s certainly a possible perversion of the Christian approach that you can get absolution/forgiveness from God (I don’t understand the distinction) without seeking it first from the person you have wronged (if possible; it isn’t if you have killed them). This is neatly illustrated by a Lutheran propaganda story from the early days of the Reformation about a German knight who went to Johann Tetzel, the famous vendor of indulgences, and after delicate negotiations bought one for a future crime, viz. assaulting a corrupt fraudster. One dark night Tetzel was travelling through a forest and found the knight waiting for him …

    2. I would like to see a scholar of Judiasm respond to both James and myself:

      I think James is using “forgive” as a synonym for “absolve,” which is a slightly different word. Only God can absolve a sinner for his sin, but if his sin is directed againse me (e.g., lied to me or stole from me), I think I can [correctly] “forgive” the injury he did to me.

  4. Johann: Are you saying that if someone sincerely apologizes then they are entitled to forgiveness? I don’t agree. I am not sure people *can* always forgive or should be expected to…incest victims, those whose families were slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge, communities where everyone got cancer from profit-motivated chemical dumping…we could both make a long list of horribly victimized people.

    If the perpetrators of such atrocities apologize sincerely, I am not comfortable looking down on those whose lives have been destroyed and therefore cannot simply call it all a wash and move on. I am sure you do not intend this, but your message might be understood by a victimized person as “Okay, okay, your children are dead, but the guy who did it said he was sorry — when are you going to stop being such a small-minded grouch about it?”

    1. Great point. I see that my reference to “the obligations and responsibilities of the forgiver” easily lends itself to the reading that my post was about what apologisers are entitled to. But that wasn’t really the emphasis I was going for.

      Really, someone who apologises isn’t typically *entitled* to forgiveness. My point is rather about what needs to happen in order for people to move on. And if someone has been severely victimised, for example, it might just be the case that either moving on simply isn’t a priority for them, or that moving on is a priority but that no apology can truly heal the wound. Both of those interpretations still fit in pretty neatly with what I wrote in my post: in the former case, the victim exploits the power imbalance of the apologiser’s shame; in the latter case, the apology doesn’t effectively reverse the power imbalance that the original harm created, and so forgiveness can’t really work. Regardless, I’m not setting up a justification for calling victims of incest small-minded grouches for failing to forgive their abusers. That’s just not what this is about.

      The examples you give, crucially, are criminal. I steered away from criminal harms intentionally in my post because the process of forgiveness in those cases looks a little different, and is a tad more complex. And, wait for it, but I’m about to argue that in criminal cases apologisers (offenders) actually might indeed be entitled to forgiveness. Kant wrote that a sincere apologiser is someone who wishes for his or her own punishment, both to demonstrate recognition of the gravity of their harm and to provide some means of restitution. Victims might find an apology sufficient on one of those grounds but not on the other. In that case, forgiveness isn’t even on the horizon, because the apology hasn’t really cut it. But criminal law has a work-around to ensure that this problem is solved.

      The added dimension in criminal law is that the assignment of guilt by a court of law replaces the function of a voluntary apology with a coerced one. The stigma of a jury of peers saying “Guilty,” while not an extraction of remorse per se, is “an assertion of moral truth in the face of its denial” (Hampton, “Forgiveness and Mercy” 1988:124). It forces the inversion of the power imbalance that a voluntary apology would usually have provided. Moreover, it’s backed with a sentence that’s supposed to provide a kind of proportionality in the redress that simply saying you’re sorry can’t. In other words, saying “I’m sorry” might be enough if I’ve stepped on your toe, but it won’t do if I’ve perpetrated the kind of atrocity you mention. Hence the need for the authority of the state to elicit proportionally sufficient redress through criminal law.

      Where the point of my post relates to criminal law is that the sentence served by a convicted offender is supposed to expiate the offender’s infraction. Once someone has been degraded, either through serving a prison sentence, paying a fine, or whatever else, the debt is repaid and formal forgiveness *may* be expected.

      The reason things get a little more complex in criminal law is now obvious: sometimes, offenders show no remorse. In those instances, does the criminal punishment applied to the offender effectively invert the power imbalance caused by the initial harm? I argue yes, because that’s its purpose. But is that all that’s required before the power imbalance can be neutralised entirely through forgiveness? No, in some instances it evidently isn’t.

  5. This reminds me of something I’ve long thought, mightn’t it be really healing, and civilizing of the national discourse, if, in our private lives the right-wingers among us turned to their more skeptical neighbors and relatives and said, ‘I’m sorry. You were completely right about the Bushies and the war, and I was completely wrong.’ So far I have not had this experience — not even once. Has anyone?

    1. You are talking about people who equate apologizing with weakness, hence their outrage when U.S. Presidents apologize even for abject horrors (e.g., the slave trade)

      1. I don’t think that’s an entirely fair point in any context and I would refer you to Keith’s excellent comment above. There are a great many things that may be simply unforgivable or which the victims do not choose to forgive.

        Unless you plan on opening up a “reeducation camp” for conservatives, it is certainly not obligatory for them to confess their sins and errors about the Iraq War and certainly not if they truly believe that you weren’t completely right about the Bushies and the war. There are many conservatives who have written such articles (so we have all had the experience you crave, at least from a distance), just as there are many who haven’t “repented”.

        But your and Kalkaino’s comments open up a new line of thought—can the concepts of “forgiveness” and “apologizing” become perverted, politicized and cheapened when either the apology or the forgiveness may be seen as a submission to a new order?

  6. In the christian version of this that I was taught, the big thing was repentance, and particularly penance, without which repentance was not really considered valid. Actions speak louder than words particularly in cases where one person has injured others. And no matter how sincerely one means the words of an apology in the moment, it’s the subsequent behavior that counts.

    Of course, this also gets us into the question of what forgiveness means: some people above have suggested that it’s a return to the status quo ante; other (more rightly, I think) that it’s more of a social act, with subsequent trust an entirely different matter.

    There’s a good argument to be made, I think, that adequate penance and restitution are necessary not so much for the equilibrium of those who have been offended as for the soul/honor/whatever of the person who has done the offending. Because if they simply apologize, no matter how apparently (to others and themselves) sincerely and contritely, and then return to their previous life, they will never really know whether they apologized out of true repentance or just to get people off their backs.

    Those who issue non-apologies or don’t apologize at all, well.

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