On Apology, Redux

Tensions are running really high in philosophy right now. We’re in the midst of a sea change — on awareness of climate issues in the discipline, and on thoughts about what constitutes “good” philosophy. It’s a sea change that some philosopher-friends have quietly speculated may change the 2000-year-old face of philosophy itself.

One of the sources of the tension is the fact that certain prominent philosophers — I count at least eight in the past year — have been publicly accused of certain transgressions. Some of those philosophers have attempted to defend or explain their actions (or, worse, failed to accept that the fact that someone is offended means that there has been an offense), and, in doing so, have made the situation worse.

About six months ago, I wrote a piece called “On Apology,” in which I made a first pass at a few guidelines for apologizing. Conversations with colleagues on Facebook over the past few days have led me to think it might be helpful to republish part of that post at this particular juncture.

Here are the guidelines I proposed:

1. In order for an apology to be effective, it must be presented in a way that enables the offended to privately decline:

The offer of an apology should be made in a way that it does not further violate the autonomy of the offended. Specifically, it should be worded in a way that permits the offended to gracefully and privately decline the offer, without further conflict.

As Elizabeth Spelman explains in Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World, for a victim who does not want reconciliation, an apology can be problematic if it is not presented in a manner that provides the offended an opportunity to reject it without further harm:

“My apology is a kind of subpoena, pressing you for an appearance, a response. Given what I have declared, and declared openly, about my deeds and my attitude toward them, shouldn’t you be pleased? Shouldn’t you give up any anger and resentment you have? Don’t you at least owe me some kind of response?… You have lost the moral high ground your anger might have afforded you. But more, it shifts the burden now to you.” (Spelman 2002, 99)

To issue a public apology without the express permission of the offended can be worse than not apologizing at all.

(Thanks to Alice MacLachlan for this insight.)

2. It should also aim to be a redistribution of power and a performance of vulnerability:

Apologies are important because they provide an opportunity for the relatively powerful to experience vulnerability, to comprehend one feature of the offense, and, through that comprehension, empower the offended. In other words, apologies can act as a channel for the redistribution of power, which is often a precondition for moving forward. As Aaron Lazare, former Dean and Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, explains in On Apology:

“what makes an apology work is the exchange of shame and power between the offender and the offended. By apologizing, you take the shame of your offense and redirect it to yourself… In acknowledging your shame you give the offended the power to forgive.” (Lazare 2004, 42)

For this reason, apologies typically cannot accomplished through a single written message.

An effective apology is often a series of performative speech acts — an attempt to transform a social reality, rather than simply describe or ruefully acknowledge that reality. In the case of apologies for offenses that reflect an existing power asymmetry, to apologize in a way that reasserts that power is not transformative. In order for an apology to be effective, it must be a performance of vulnerability, not an extended expression of power.

So, for example, Madonna’s botched attempts to issue an apology for using a hashtag with a racial slur were unsuccessful because, even after dropping her attempts to defend the indefensible, the “apology” she offered was an expression of power, an assertion of her imagined role as an inspiration and bearer of messages of tolerance:

“MY job is to inspire and bring people together. My message has always been about tolerance and non-judgment. The last thing I want to do is bring chaos or cause separation in anyway. #revolutionoflove”

An effective apology in this case would have been a process of: acknowledging that a racial slur is an expression of intolerance; attempting to genuinely comprehend why outrage is an appropriate reaction, perhaps via dialogue with the offended or an effort to empathetically imagine the experience of those offended; and publicly admitting ignorance and explaining why the slur is offensive, with credit to those who helped her with the process of understanding. Given the complexities of the often intersectional nature of discrimination, harassment, and violence, dialogue and performative imagination is a particularly important aspect of our attempts to comprehend.

In the case of institutional, official apologies, a performance of vulnerability—as in, say, publicly admitting culpability despite concerns about the possible legal ramifications—is particularly important, given that the relationship is almost always asymmetrical. (And, for what it’s worth, any aversion to apology on a purported legal basis is probably worth questioning. Case law is rife with examples in which apology and remorse have resulted in the mitigation of damages and even punishment.)

3. If the offended is willing to accept an apology, it should be both public and private:

Apologies should be both public—provided that the apology is couched in a way that does not violate the privacy and autonomy of the offended, if the offended either does not want the facts known or does not want an apology—and private.

To issue an apology that is only public is like referring to someone who is in the room using the third person; it is to fail to understand that an apology, as a transaction of power and shame, must occur between the offender and offended. So, for example, in the case of Madonna’s apology above, a “real” apology would have been not just a public broadcast on her Instagram page, but also a personal apology addressed to each individual who expressed disgust in response to her use of a racial slur, and/or a letter of apology to associations representing the offended group.

To issue an apology that is only private, on the other hand, is like issuing a promissory note without any intent to pay. Transactions should have a public or verifiable element in order be a legitimate, enduring, and trustworthy exchange.

4. It must be grounded in an affirmation of a shared norm:

An apology should be an affirmation of a norm that the apologizer believes to be appropriate and binding. In order to serve as a basis for reconciliation, it cannot be a mere acknowledgement of a difference in belief or values, with a request for forgiveness based on a provisional acceptance of the difference. To respond to an offense by saying, “I think the restrictions that are being imposed on me are misguided, but I understand that my actions have been perceived as offensive and therefore apologize,” is to acknowledge that a transgression has taken place—but in a manner that places the onus for the judgment of unacceptability on an unshared belief or value endorsed by the offended, rather than on a shared belief or value. It therefore blocks reconciliation by calling attention to differences, rather than by recalling and reaffirming the legitimacy of communal codes of behavior or values that have been violated in the offense.

Similarly, the language of the apology must name and describe the offense in the way that the offended understands it—in terms that acknowledge that it is in fact an offense and demonstrate that the offender has acquired some level of comprehension of the underlying issues. Attempting to apologize for “non-consensual sex” with a “freshman” is unlikely to be effective, when what happened was the rape of a first-year student.

5. It should be mindful of the needs for restitution/reparation:

Restitution is the act of restoring to the rightful owner something that has been taken, lost, or surrendered. Reparation is the act of repairing or making amends for a wrong.

If we use case law as a model, then it is reasonable to think that whether restitution and/or reparation are a required in order for an apology to serve as grounds for reconciliation depends on the degree of the harm experienced by the offended. (Note that I said the degree of the harm experienced, not the degree of the harm inflicted. This is a subjective measure, not an objective measure of the harm, as substantiated by evidence such as the testimony of counselors and other experts, the victim’s narrative as relayed via correspondence at the time of the offense, etc.)

It may also depend on whether the offense takes place in an environment of systemic inequity or power imbalance. When an offense results in the loss of a job, opportunity, or other tangible benefit, an apology, arguably, must be more than words. As Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu remarks in God Has a Dream:

“If someone steals my pen and then asks me to forgive him, unless he returns my pen the sincerity of his contrition and confession will be considered nil. Confession, forgiveness, and reparation, wherever feasible, form part of a continuum.” (Tutu 2004, 57)

Many believe that when an offense is an example of the kinds of actions that perpetuate a deeply entrenched or systemic form of injustice, an apology that aims to reconcile must include both a commitment to both restitution in the form of working to try to restore the particular loss(es) of the offended, and reparation in the form of a commitment to trying to address the broader problem of the systemic injustice(s).

6. It should be sincere and non-obsequious display of empathy and/or affect:

Some victims point to an affective element that must be present for an apology to be a “real” or effective. The affective component of the offer, in order to be sincere, also should not be excessively beseeching—as was the case, for example, with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s early January 2014 press conference, in which he apologized more than two dozen times for the George Washington Bridge incident.

Perhaps even more important than the affect is empathy. As one survivor of an instance of sexual misconduct in philosophy said to me last fall, “I don’t want him [the offender] to suffer; there’s already been enough of that. I just wish I could somehow make him see what I’ve been through.” To see or feel what a victim has been through requires an empathetic and vivid re-imagining of both the offense and the context of offense from the point of view of the offended.

I don’t know whether bona fide apologies regarding certain transgressions in philosophy are possible right now, particularly given that we appear to be struggling to agree on norms, and what is and is not bad.

But it can’t harm to at least be thinking about what an apology might look like, particularly if we feel inclined to apologize ourselves, or witness an attempt to apologize.

Comments closed to allow time for thought.