On Apology

Who’s sorry now? And will they apologize successfully? Dr. Aaron Lazare, professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, makes a convincing case for the growing importance and frequency of public and private apologies. He thinks this development is due to the interconnectedness and fragile interdependence of our global village. To survive dangerous disputes, people must achieve conflict resolution in more effective ways. In addition, since World War II, moral commitments to justice and human rights have increased. Lazare thinks the emergence of women’s influence in the world is also a factor in movements toward harmonious human relations.

Effective apologies restore relationships and produce healing by meeting many needs. Pseudo- and failed apologies make things worse. Lazare provides a defining account of what a good apology entails and shrewdly skewers self-serving shams. He teaches by telling stories and gives accounts of apologies attempted by presidents, governments, and clergymen-from popes, to cardinals, to sexual-abusing priests, to Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham.

Literary classics, real-life criminals, and celebrities also make appearances in his work, along with experiences from Lazare’s demanding career and family life. He and his wife adopted eight children, so he has had access to lots of first-hand material. Once he embarked on his research, friends and lecture audiences volunteered more stories. The result is a rich tapestry woven of experience and analysis.

Lazare scrutinizes the apologies he describes and judges them by his standard for effectiveness. A successful apology, whether private or public, requires as a minimum the offender’s personal acknowledgment of responsibility for a specific mistake or grievance, along with an expression of remorse appropriately tendered to the aggrieved party. Apologies may or may not include explanations, promises of reform, or provisions for reparations. Each apology is a unique event made up of different interacting components. Apologies may be written, verbal, or nonverbal. They may be brief or negotiated over time through give and take until a successful resolution is reached.

In public corporate apologies, the perceived sincerity of remorse is less crucial than it is in a successful private apology. Formal institutional apologies may include financial reparations and be memorialized in a historical record. Public apologies may consist of one to many, many to one, or many to many. Strategic apologies or those of questionable purity may be effective, coerced by threats of penalties, but any authentic apology must include remorse and not be a traditional “apologia” or a justifying explanation for an action.

Failed apologies avoid acknowledging personal responsibility for the specific offense by shifting the blame to the victim, by minimizing the harm done, or by deflecting the apology to the wrong party for the wrong offense without an adequate expression of remorse. Lazare gives sharp critiques of some deplorable pseudo-apologies offered by the likes of Senator Trent Lott and Cardinal Bernard Law. The all-too-familiar Lott/Law type of failure employs the passive voice and the conditional “if.” “If mistakes have been made,” or, “if people have been hurt” (through the fault of their own overreactions?), then, “I am sorry for any suffering, or whatever has happened.”

Ironically, the empathetic compassionate but ambiguous phrase, “I am sorry,” can serve to invalidate the requirement for the assumption of responsibility for the grievance. To express sorrow and deplore suffering is no apology: as seen in remarks such as “I am sorry you had to respond this way,” or “ I am sorry we had to bomb your village.”

I would add to Lazare’s list those pseudo-apologies that mask personal assaults which initiate another round of hostilities. Who has not been bludgeoned by accusatory apologies that start out admitting to a small mistake, but quick as a flash turn into all-out attacks on the other’s grievous sins and failings? Some cruel pseudo-apologies wound by dumping secrets on their victims, such as, “I apologize for voting against your tenure since I never thought your work had merit,” or “I’m sorry for my affair with your spouse, sister, mother, son, or daughter...” Or worst of all, “I apologize for having gone along with our marriage when I really never loved you.”

By contrast, an authentic healing apology meets many positive needs. It can restore an aggrieved person’s self-respect and dignity, and give assurances that the victim was not at fault, or simply imagined the offense. More subtly, a successful apology assures the aggrieved party that victim and offender share the same moral values in a world with common ethical standards. Less subtly, apologies with reparations may recuperate losses. Then there is the less admirable satisfaction in a successful apology of knowing that the offender has also suffered from empathetic remorse or shame.

Good apologies restore equality by giving the offended person the power to accept or reject the apology. The pain is transferred from the victim to the offender and can relieve both. In many cases the provision of an explanation clarifies events and helps a victim or a victim’s family understand what happened. As long as an explanation does not attempt to be a defensive excuse, the information given can further reconciliation. Truth-and-reconciliation commissions have had positive results from disclosing truthful accounts of past events.

Resistance to the arduous and risky process of apology is understandable. As painful personal experience testifies, apologies are threatening to one’s self-respect and pride since they require humility and admissions of failure. They also risk rejection, scorn, and possible penalties. The appropriate timing of apologies is an important factor in success. But it is never too late. Long-delayed apologies are effective because there is no time limit on emotional pain. Conscience does not sleep as long as memory lasts.

In different situations the negotiating process may take time for satisfaction to be achieved. This is most true in public or externally driven apologies. Cultures (such as the Japanese) may have different concepts of what rituals and behavior are required to satisfy an injury.

Different religious beliefs about forgiveness are complementary with attitudes toward apology. Lazare wants to confine his research to the secular psycho-social arena, but he cannot avoid discussing the religious traditions in which apology has been so centrally embedded. His brief chapter on forgiveness may be less satisfying to religious believers, but it does bring up the interesting theological question of whether forgiveness should depend on a prior apology. Surely most Christians tend to say no, given the unconditional love for sinners shown by Christ. By contrast, Lazare describes the Jewish tradition as tougher. He goes on to suggest that sometimes unilateral “forgiveness” without prior apology may be motivated more by the need to avoid conflict than by charity. (This is an idea I need to think about more!)

Fortunately, in both apology and forgiveness, humility and the motivating force of conscience and social bonds operate. While good apologies may be hard work and risky they do release amazing healing energies. I hope Lazare will focus on this dynamic in his next round of research. But why be greedy for more, when we can be grateful for this fine work. On Apology satisfies and succeeds through its careful research, intelligence, and insight. Happily, a good man has written a good book.

Published in the 2005-04-22 issue: 
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Sidney Callahan is a psychologist and the author of Created for Joy: A Christian View of Suffering.

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