The sorry state of public apologies

September 25, 2006|By Steven Gimbel

We have seen a spate of public apologies recently. Sen. George Allen of Virginia apologized for referring to an Indian-American as "Macaca," Mel Gibson apologized for a drunken anti-Semitic rant, and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer told Maryland voters, "I said some things I shouldn't" during his recent campaign for re-election.

Most recently, Pope Benedict XVI apologized for including in a speech the words of emperor Manuel II Palaeologus, who wrote, "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

Interestingly, all these apologies had the same general form: "I am sorry that people were offended by my words."

Apologies are interesting linguistic acts because they may be intended to accomplish any of a number of distinct purposes. You may apologize to gain the forgiveness of someone you have wronged, to comfort someone who has been injured, to express deep contrition for your actions - or merely to appear as if you are expressing deep contrition. Like a child given a birthday present he does not like - who says "thank you" only because it is socially expected of him - sometimes we apologize for reasons of etiquette and not genuine regret.

Mr. Schaefer, at least, did seem to put the onus on himself, although he never delved into the specifics of what he was sorry for, saying merely, "I never meant to offend anyone. And if I did, I apologize."

We cannot know the intentions of Senator Allen, Mr. Gibson or the pope, but we can say something about the structure of all the apologies: They were outward-pointing. These apologies have the problem of seeming to say to the recipient that if you had not felt offended, I would have nothing to apologize for. When an apology focuses on the feelings of others and not the acts of oneself, the apology sounds weak.

Mr. Gibson's mea culpa did go further than some others in owning up to the offending act, but it came in the curious form of, "I'm sorry, but ... " He drew a distinction between an "articulated and thought-out" statement and one that is "blurted out in a moment of insanity."

Leave aside for a moment the question of whether intoxication counts as insanity, in which one has lost control of one's rational faculties, or whether it simply decreases one's ability to self-censor that which one is really thinking but usually does not say. Mr. Gibson expressed regret for being drunk and for the fact that the words came out of his mouth, but he also explained why the content of the offending words could not really be attributed to him. It is a strange apology that has the structure, "I am truly sorry, but it's not like I really have anything to be truly sorry about."

Further complications arise when we realize that saying one is sorry about something may not be the same as apologizing. If you carelessly left your reading glasses on my chair, I might say that I am sorry that your glasses broke when I sat on them, without apologizing for any error on my part. Like a corporation that agrees to settle a claim without admitting any wrongdoing, we can say we are sorry that you feel the way you feel without admitting that our act is what made you feel that way. In other words, you may be to blame for being too thin-skinned about an innocuous comment or act, but I can still be sorry that you are upset or offended.

For this reason, outward-pointing apologies or apologies paired with excuses may not ring true with those receiving them. An effective apology not only acknowledges the hurt of the victim but also clearly demonstrates an understanding of one's own responsibility for bringing about the harm, authentically expresses one's intention to avoid such actions in the future, and offers a sincere regret for having done it in the first place.

When an apology only notes the suffering without taking full ownership of the act that caused the suffering, the apology can sound hollow, even if it is meant in all sincerity.

I am willing to take Mr. Allen, Mr. Schaefer, Mr. Gibson and the pope at their word and consider their expressions of regret to be legitimate, but if they want to understand how one truly apologizes, history offers examples of heartfelt public mea culpas to consider. Perhaps the most famous is that of Robert E. Lee, who, after the battle of Gettysburg and his offer of his resignation, said, "It is all my fault. I lost this battle." More recently, Richard A. Clarke, before the 9/11 commission, was clearly empathetic to those who lost loved ones when he said, "I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn't matter because we failed."

These men took full ownership of their actions. Without excuses or hedging, they gave unqualified statements of apology - something I am sorry we do not see more of.

Steven Gimbel, a Mount Airy resident, is an associate professor of philosophy at Gettysburg College. His e-mail is

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