We all tacitly know when an apology has the ring of truth, and when it does not. We can deepen our understanding by thinking about what makes an apology not an apology. One of the simplest but most cogent analyses I have seen is that of the Idealistic Pragmatist, who sees two conditions to genuine apologies, expression of regret and accepting responsibility. When one of these is not present, the resulting apology is not a true apology. What is more, when one or both of these are present but somehow miss the mark — the regret expressed is not about what offended others or the responsibility taken is fuzzy and unclear — the apology is not an apology. So, not only does regret have to be expressed and responsibility taken, but they have to be expressed and accepted about the right set of circumstances, not some convenient re-framing that lets the speaker off the hook. It seems to be that implicit in these conditions is an undertaking not to repeat the offense.
Vickie Pynchon points to an apology posted by a business development specialist that I think should be reprinted in full:
I sincerely apologize for the crude and offensive “Elevator Pitch” post I put online last week. In the clear light of morning, it is clear that it was anti-Semitic and repellent. I want to thank all the people who commented and called me about it; I listened and took what you said to heart.
I have deleted the post. It was a mistake to repeat a crude joke that I heard in rural Illinois, and I should have known better. It was a worse mistake to say it was the “best” of its kind, when actually it was hideous.
The post offended people I admire and hold near. I certainly don’t espouse the kind of thinking behind the obnoxious “elevator pitch” and don’t want anyone to think I do. A friend called me, recounting how he heard a Holocaust survivor describe being evaluated by Dr. Mengele in a concentration camp, but was fortunate to be passed over. I was horrified and immediately deleted the blog post. A member of my own family was captured in the Second World War and imprisoned in a Russian concentration camp until the 1950s, and there was nothing funny about it.
I regret I didn’t delete it sooner, and should have had the good sense not to put it online in the first place.
(All of the emphases are the author’s, Larry Bodine‘s.)
Once again, Vickie nicely sums up:
The point is that we all trespass on the feelings of others; those feelings are critical to our connection with one another; our connection with one another is critical not only to our sense of well-being, but to our very survival; the desire for reconciliation is therefore natural, as is our desire to be forgiven, our expression of remorse, our explanation for our momentary lapse of consideration and our fellows’ willingness to forgive, particularly where we bare ourselves and our histories to one another in the course of our effort to re-establish what joins us and to move beyond that which divides us.
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Accepting responsibility may be lacking even in this earnest attempt to apologize – by framing the content as coming from rural Illinois, so that one “should have known better,” Larry belies true responsibility. Whether the offending remark was generated from a rural source in the heartland or an urban sophisticate, it was inappropriate and intuitively could be recognized as such, not because it came from Illinois, but because it was harmful and hurtful. Seems to me that as long as the blame is outside of one’s self, the self betrayal can be justified. I like Vicki’s sincere apology for our human errors, and how recognizing our own imperfections, we can transform them at the heart level. By placing blame outside of ourself, as in the packaging in which the remark was presented, we are still not accepting full responsibility. Convenient reframing, casting blame as in “I should have known it was offensive,” coming as it was from another group against whom I discriminate – well, another good example of how we need to be mindful, reflect rather than react. Thanks for the full look at this interesting situation.