From William Carlos Williams, “Apology,” 1916:
Why do I write today?
The beauty of
The terrible faces
Of our nonentities
Stirs me to it:
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are currently approximately 13 million women enrolled at degree-granting higher education institutions in the U.S. And according to the White House Council on Women and Girls’ January 2014 report, 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted while pursuing a higher degree. These two facts together mean that approximately 2.6 million women at college this year either have been or will be the victim of a sexual assault.
Most college victims are assaulted by someone they know, and campus perpetrators are often serial offenders. One study found that 7% of college men admitted to committing or attempting rape; 63% of these men admitted to committing an average of 5-6 offenses.
Although there are no hard statistics on the number of serial predators who are faculty members, anecdotal evidence suggests that this, too, is a significant problem. I have yet to work or study at a university where there was not a serial harasser or even a serial rapist on the faculty.
Conversations with colleagues in philosophy, in the wake of the revelation of sexual misconduct problems in the CU Boulder philosophy department, the case against a Northwestern philosophy faculty member, the recent dismissal of an Oxford philosopher in the wake of concerns about the university’s handling of an investigation, and other allegations of sexual misconduct in the Yale philosophy department—less than a year after a prominent philosopher at UMiami resigned in a much-publicized sexual misconduct case—have convinced me that the problem of faculty sexual misconduct in the hallowed halls of academia is far more widespread than even I imagined. In philosophy alone, I can name 33 faculty members who (still) hold tenured positions and who have been, at some point in their career, accused of sexual misconduct. I have also become convinced that in many cases both the offended and the offender are harmed, and often others in the university community, too—which means that the number of persons who are hurting is even greater than the number of instances of misconduct. We need to figure out how to collectively move beyond known conflicts and harms.
One of the steps in moving beyond is certainly to start talking about the policy question, about how to best prevent and respond to instances of sexual misconduct. But to merely engage in policy debates without acknowledging the individual humans who have been harmed by the problem would be to do more harm. In order to reduce the pain of those who have suffered, we need to break the silence; reach out to those who have been harmed; stop the practice of covering up faculty offenses with non-disclosure agreements (unless explicitly requested by the victim); worry first about the victim or survivor and second about the reputation of the university or faculty; and acknowledge that our complicity and failure to act has caused significant harm to an untold number of students.
We need, in other words, to apologize.
But what does it mean to apologize for an offense that one hasn’t committed? How could an apology from someone other than the offender reduce the pain of those offended?
I offered some thoughts last fall, in an open letter to Katie Roiphe, about how asymmetries of power in certain kinds of relationships can affect our ability to give consent. What I didn’t emphasize at the time was the importance of respect for vulnerability – and of knowing how to achieve 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)
Now, clearly, not all apologies will effectively redistribute power. And ineffective apologies have, for some reason, become a sort of phenomenon in the U.S. over the past few months.
What makes an apology effective? Here’s a first pass at a few criteria:
1. A performance of vulnerability:
An effective apology is often a performative speech act — 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, our legal aversion to apology 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.)
2. Both public and private:
Apologies should be both public, provided that the apology is couched in a way that does not violate the privacy of the offended if the offended does not want the facts known, 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.
3. 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 Puritanical, 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.
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).
5. Empathy and affect:
Some victims point to an affective element that must be present for an apology to be a “real” or effective. The offer must be a non-binding and genuine offer to reconcile; the offender must genuinely mean to make an offer, both in the sense that s/he is visibly affected in a personal but non-self-indulgent sense, and in the sense that the offer should be made in a way that permits the offended to gracefully decline. 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)
(Thanks to Alice MacLachlan for this insight.)
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.
Sounds like a pretty complex set of criteria, no?
Complex, but not impossible. Perhaps the best example of a strong apology, one that meets many of these criteria, is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which contains explicit and appropriate apologies, avoids any attempt to defend or explain the offense, focuses on healing and reconciliation of victims and survivors, provides a means of accountability for the future, acknowledges the need for restitution, and offers explicit direction in disciplining offenders.
We are at a watershed moment, with the recent passage of the Campus SaVE Act, which was slated to go into effect on March 7, a lawsuit filed on March 2 by a University of Virginia rape victim to try to block the implementation of Campus SaVE, the January 22 U.S. Presidential Memorandum to create the new White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault, and the January 29 letter from 39 members of the U.S. House of Representatives to the Office of Civil Rights, calling for, among other things, the creation of a public database of complaint resolutions.
While Washington continues to debate the policies, I challenge the faculty and leaders of higher education follow the model of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter. Specifically:
I challenge the leaders of higher education to organize a Higher Education Leadership Council to draw up a specific apology and a set of commitments that go beyond the bare minimum required by laws such as Title IX and VAWA/Campus SaVE.
I challenge members of the Council and individual campus administrators and faculty leaders to agree not to enter into settlements which bind the parties to confidentiality unless the victim/survivor requests confidentiality and this request is noted in the text of the agreement.
I challenge members of the Council and individual universities to promote reconciliation for alumni and former students by permitting victims from the past to step forward to report previously unreported problems, particularly problems caused by faculty members who may still be teaching.
I challenge members of the Council and individual universities to agree to adopt policies which provide that for even a single act of sexual assault which is admitted or established after an appropriate process in accordance with university policies or relevant law, the member of the community is to be permanently removed from any position in which s/he is in contact with the victim and other potential victims, and, if warranted, dismissed from the university.
I challenge members the Council to commit to improving inter-university transparency and communication, so that a known perpetrator with a problem that has not been resolved through therapeutic professional assistance is not able to simply move from one university to another.
I challenge individual faculty to learn about—and question—individual campus policies and procedures, to seek knowledge about how best to respond if a victim or survivor does come forward, and to make ourselves available to students in a way that respects and supports student autonomy and agency.
I challenge the members of the Council—and all members of the community of higher education—to make our own the words of Vice President Biden when he drafted the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act: “…violence against women reflects as much a failure of our nation’s collective moral imagination as it does the failure of our nation’s laws and regulations. We are helpless to change the course of this violence unless, and until, we achieve a national consensus that it deserves our profound public outrage.”