Apologies that Call for an Apology
Have you noticed how a mea culpa from a public figure these days rarely even resembles “I’m sorry” or “I’m to blame” or “It was my fault”?
Rather, the apology, in essence, goes more like this: “I apologize unreservedly and with heartfelt concern to all those who were so stupid, so thin-skinned, so misguided as to be offended by my actions or comments.” And even that kind of excuse-for-an-apology often doesn’t come until there’s simply no way to avoid it.
But what’s truly amazing is how often the pubic–or at least certain segments of the public–responds as if there actually has been an apology!
Some thirty years ago I was covering (as a reporter) a major meeting of my denomination’s international leadership group. The church’s president, a man used to getting his own way, was determined to railroad through a new organizational structure for one of the church’s regions.
After several hours of floor speeches–many of them strongly against the motion–the president took a straw vote “just to test the mood of the meeting.” His cherished proposal failed to pass. But noting that it had been “merely a straw vote,” he tabled the motion for later discussion.
His pressure tactics and obvious manipulation had upset some participants. So the next morning he acknowledged the complaints he’d received and said he felt an apology was in order. He alluded to a Chinese proverb that says, “When you apologize, bow low.” So, he said, he was “bowing low.”
Then he proceeded to apologize for having done such a poor job of presenting his case–so bad, in fact, that the majority of participants had voted against his proposal in the straw vote. Had he presented his case better, he assured his listeners, they would most certainly have seen the light and been on his side. With considerable emotion he declared his deep regret and chagrin at having been such an abysmal failure.
And he did it all with a straight face.
During the lunch break, I interviewed several of the meeting’s participants. Almost to a person, they told me how impressed they were that our world-church leader was so humble that he would publicly apologize for his mistakes. The fact that he was merely telling them that he’d underestimated their stupidity seemed to slip right past them!
But his charade worked. And when later that afternoon he called for a real vote on the motion, it passed.
I couldn’t help but think of that experience when Chuck Hagel, who’s being considered as a possible nominee for Secretary of Defense, recently “apologized” for statements made back in 1998 concerning a gay candidate for an ambassadorial appointment.
In his apology, Hagel said: “My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive. They do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record, and I apologize to Ambassador (James) Hormel and any LGBT Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights. I am fully supportive of ‘open service’ and committed to LGBT military families” (emphasis mine).
To be fair, Hagel’s statement came closer to a true mea culpa than have many I’ve heard over the past few years. But it still had that all-too-familiar stench of being an apology for the stupidity of others rather than for his own mistake.
Note that he didn’t apologize to everyone in the LGBT community for the damage his 14-years-ago remarks might have done to them in any number of ways. Instead, he, in essence, apologized to those of the LGBT community who might be stupid enough to think that a man who would make admittedly insensitive comments 14 years ago just might not stand up for their civil rights now. Taking Hagel’s words at face value, who did he suggest had the problem? He himself? Or the ones to whom he was purportedly apologizing?
In the Christian scriptures we encounter the word “confession.” Confession is admitting one’s guilt. But we also encounter the word “repentance.” Repentance entails being truly sorry for one’s actions, accepting full responsibility, seeking to ensure there are no recurrences and righting the wrong to the degree possible. True apology must be based on both confession and repentance.
Carefully parsed words that in essence say the victims are stupid don’t qualify as an apology. They’re actually just one more thing that should be apologized for.
James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.