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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Meaningless Apologies - Saying You’re Sorry Without Real Contrition

Apparently the average Briton says “Sorry” eight times a day.  Although Henry Hitchings (New York Times 12.14.13) provides no historical context – whether the British are feeling more apologetic now than in years past – it seems so, and he wonders why.

The English “sorry” is a marker not of grace and decorum, but rather of a belief that one magic word has the power to decontaminate the world even as it both pacifies and reproves those who pollute it. “Sorry” is a mixture of decayed piety and passive-aggressive guile.

The English, says Hitchings, have added a particular twist to the word. “It’s my fault,” the English say when they are sure it’s your fault and want you to squirm.” Leave it to the British of the arched eyebrow, dripping sarcasm, and elegantly phrased slight, to find a way to wound without reprisal.

Sloane Crosley, writing in the New York Times (6.23.15) suggests that women especially say ‘Sorry’ a lot; but like the British are not really apologizing.

These sorrys are actually assertive. Unfortunately, for both addresser and addressee alike, the “assertive apology” is too indirect, obscuring the point. It comes off as passive-aggressive — the easiest of the aggressions to dismiss.

So [women] should stop. It’s not what we’re saying that’s the problem, it’s what we’re not saying. The sorrys are taking up airtime that should be used for making logical, declarative statements, expressing opinions and relaying accurate impressions of what we want.

Apologies are not what they seem.  They can be put-downs, timid assertions of right, and conflict avoidance; but most of all they are venal, self-serving gestures to deflect criticism.  Apologies without contrition are meaningless. Men are good at saying sorry to their wives without the slightest intention of reforming their behavior. Children know that parents smile at even the most insincere expression of regret; and politicians, understanding that good Christian Americans want to forgive, apologize for everything.

It is hard these days to avoid hearing apologies. Politicians have the most smarmy and indefensible affairs and when finally outed simply apologize.  “I am sorry that my actions have caused so much hurt and pain to my family, friends and colleagues”, they say, careful never to say they are sorry for the act itself. They are as adept at twisting apologies for their own ends as the English.   I didn’t do anything wrong, said Newt Gingrich after admitting infidelities while his wife was being treated for cancer:

Let's remember, Newt famously dumped wife #1 for wife #2 while wife #1 was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery. As in literally went to the hospital to present her with divorce papers while she was recovering from surgery for uterine cancer.

He eventually dumped wife #2 for wife #3 shortly after wife #2 was diagnosed with MS back in 1999. And he was having the affair on wife #2 with wife #3 while he was turning the country upside down trying to drive Bill Clinton from office over his affair with Monica Lewinsky (Josh Marshall, New York Magazine 3.9.11)

Newt Gingrich


John Edwards was no different:

When Edwards first admitted to the affair, he stated that Elizabeth was in remission from breast cancer. However, it became clear that the affair was still ongoing, even after he and his wife made a joint announcement that her cancer had returned and was found to be incurable. Elizabeth Edwards died on December 7, 2010. (Wikipedia)

Yes, he was philandering while his wife was dying.  Yes, he lied to her; and yes, he bribed an underling to say he was the father of Edwards’ illegitimate child; but he never apologized for wrong-doing, just for the hurt that he caused:

Edwards wrote in a statement, “It was wrong for me ever to deny she was my daughter and hopefully one day, when she understands, she will forgive me….To all those I have disappointed and hurt, these words will never be enough, but I am truly sorry.” (Keith Huffman, Washington POST, 1.22.10)

Image result for images john edwards


Mark Sanford, the former governor of South Carolina who lied to everyone about his affair and told the press that he was going hiking on the Appalachian Trail when he actually was headed to Buenos Aires to be with his firecracker, is now back in office as a Representative to the Congress of the United States. He apologized - abject apologies not for his dereliction of office, cheating on his wife, or for blatant lies, but for causing hurt and pain. 

It is not surprising then that in this day of insincere apologies that whole countries feel the need to apologize.  Poor Queen Elizabeth was forced into apologizing for British atrocities in Kenya, convinced by her Prime Minister that such an apology for alleged murders of Mau Mau ‘freedom fighters’ would tighten the bond between the two countries.

The apology must have really stuck in the craw of the Queen, old enough to remember the glory days of Empire, when Kenya was the jewel in crown of British Africa, when her forbearers had brought civilization to the natives and prosperity to the land.  Her advisors of course had to tell her of the even more savage brutality of the Mau Mau who reputedly chopped up British soldiers and grilled them over charcoal in the Great Rift Valley.  The Queen must have had to practice her apology speech very hard indeed and muster all her English self-control to utter it.

The British don’t have to go back very far in history to find other events to apologize for -  the massacres of the Boer War, the Sepoy Rebellion, and Amritsar are just a few.  In keeping with the protocol of this Age of Apology, David Cameron, British Prime Minister, did offer an apology for Amritsar, but stopped short of making it official.  As he explained to reporters in Amritsar, history is history, after all, and you can’t change it.  So in proper British fashion he said ‘Sorry’ without really meaning it.

Amritsar Massacre

Many are still waiting for the Mongolians to apologize for the outrages of Genghis Khan who killed at least 40 million people in his rampages out of the steppes to Europe and the Far East.

African Americans are still demanding reparations from the United States for slavery, but to no avail.  Recently Congress did pass a resolution apologizing for slavery and Jim Crow, but were careful to avoid any legal missteps and never waded into human rights territory.  No one voted ‘Nay’ and so Congress granted us all absolution for the past. We didn’t have to get fussed over nothing.

“I’m sorry” is like no-fault car insurance.  Something happened, both parties regret that it happened – in fact are sorry that it did – and can go back home without having to feel irresponsible, guilty, or reckless.  It is simply an expedient way to go about business. The apologies of Newt, John Edwards, Cameron, and the Queen of England relieve them of the onus of serious reflection – considering the moral and ethical implications of lying, cheating, philandering; or enforcing discipline and order through the force of arms.

Image result for images queen elizabeth young


In fact it would have been far better if Cameron and the Queen had not apologized and admitted that history was savage, brutal, and uncompromising. Expecting the worst from your adversary contributes to stalemate and standoff.  Apologizing is simply admitting weakness.  

“I’m sorry’ is by no means trivial and insignificant.  The fact that we are going through an era of insincere apologies does indeed say something about a seemingly universal moral evasiveness.  It says a lot about our gullibility and endless belief in redemption. A simple act of contrition removes all sin. Finally it says something about our cynicism.  Since it is so easy to fool a public ready to believe anything, why not do it?  Not a pretty picture.  Sorry about that.

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