Against apologies

Disclaimer: This is not in response to any particular apology. This has been on my topics list for years.  Frustratingly, when I finally committed it to words, someone went and made a public apology, and I had to postpone this to avoid association.  So here we are.

The title, “Against apologies” can be interpreted in several ways, so I will clarify my meaning up front. There’s nothing wrong with people apologizing for things they’ve done wrong. There’s nothing wrong with accepting or rejecting those apologies. The thing I am complaining about, is when people demand public apologies, and then when the apology arrives, they pick out some small detail that they say shows the apology wasn’t really sincere. I think this is more often than not, a flimsy pretext to reject apologies no matter their content.

But I am not saying that we need to accept bad apologies.  Rather, I propose that if we’re going to reject an apology, then we don’t need to invent an excuse. For some kinds of wrongdoing, we may decide that no apology will ever be acceptable.  We should be unashamed to say so.

What we want from apologies

In some ways, private apologies are a lot easier than public apologies. If what the victim wants most is for the offender to understand why their actions were harmful, then they can simply ask the offender to explain it out loud. If what the victim wants most is reparative action, they can ask for that. If the victim wants only an expression of remorse, they can ask for that and interrupt any other response. But this requires a two-way interaction, where the apologizer listens to the victim while they are delivering the apology. For a public apology, you don’t have that. The apologizer has to anticipate everything that everybody wants, and deliver it all on their first try.

On the internet, you can find many “guides” that explain what makes a good apology and what makes a bad apology. For example, look at the Geek Feminism Wiki:

  • Recognise that someone was hurt, and in what particular way they were hurt
  • Try not to make assumptions about the person’s feelings or emotional state if they have not yet expressed it because some people do not want to be tarred as “oversensitive”
  • Depending on the situation, it may be more helpful to recognise instead if you’ve severely inconvenienced a person, reduced their opportunities, or infringed on their rights
  • Accept responsibility for it, whether intended or not
  • Promise to avoid doing it again, or at least to work on it

There’s also a list of “don’t”s, which I’ve omitted. And yes, this seems like a decent list of things that people commonly want in their apologies. Apologizers should probably do the things. Good apologies are good.  But my complaint is that I think the list presents a too unified vision of what people want in their apologies.

For example, do we want apologizers to give an account of why they did what they did? Some people are really against that, because it’s too close to the apologizer trying to excuse their own actions. On the other hand, some people want apologizers to explain why what they did is wrong, and that might involve explaining the intentions behind the actions, and why those intentions were either wrong or poorly carried out. Ozy has also pointed out that sometimes we’re interested in establishing a lack of malice (which requires explaining intentions), and sometimes we only care about reducing harm (in which case intentions are irrelevant).

One way to think about this is that the apology you should make depends on the situation. But when it comes to a public apology, the people reading the apology will be in a variety of situations, and no apology can serve all their needs. Geek Feminism’s list should not be seen as a checklist for the perfect apology, it should be seen as a list of compromises that generally seem to work well.

The perils of nitpicking

Okay, but what about apologies that include statements that nobody wants to hear? For example, I don’t think anyone is happy about an apology that says “I’m sorry you were offended”. Don’t say that!

But here’s the thing. It’s a well-known rule that you shouldn’t say “I’m sorry you were offended”, right up there with “I’m not a racist but…” in terms of silly things that people say but should stop saying. So, given that it’s a well-known rule, does the presence or absence of “I’m sorry you were offended” really tell us much about the sincerity of the apology?  What if it only told us whether the apologizer was aware of the rule or not?  Is the rule really that obvious to sincere people who have never heard of the rule?

You’re welcome to continue judging apologies based on their content, but my concern is that when we get to nitpicking, we’re not really punishing insincerity or lack of remorse. We’re punishing people who are just less aware of the rules, or less eloquent.  And in turn, we are rewarding people merely for awareness of the rules and eloquency.

Even worse, we might be rewarding people with “conventional” emotional responses, and punishing people with different emotional responses. Emotional categories such as “remorse” group together a variety of emotional phenomena, and the way it is expressed depends on the individual and the culture they come from. Legal scholars are well aware of this issue, one study finding that

The indicators of remorse for some judges were the same as those that indicated the lack of remorse for others.

I feel like social justice activists of all people should be cognizant of the diversity of emotional expression.

Finally, I don’t really like the culture that apology nitpicking creates. It puts too much focus on the right manner of words and speech, instead of actions. And it puts too much focus on perpetrators rather than victims.  It’s similar to what I said about #MeToo:

Whether people are siding with or against the celebrity, they are still talking about what that means for the celebrity. Does the celebrity deserve to keep their career? Should we continue to consume media/products made by the celebrity? How good or bad was their apology? Will other celebrities find themselves in a similar position?

People put so much thought into this, and I wish they would put the same degree of thought into what it means for the survivor.

I always think of the Onion article, “As a Male Feminist, I Really Think I’d Absolutely Crush It If I Ever Had To Publicly Apologize For Sexual Misconduct“.

You don’t need to forgive

I believe the reason we are so nitpicky about apologies, is because we like to think of ourselves as compassionate people, and we think that compassionate people are willing to forgive. And so when we’re not willing to forgive, we tell a story about why forgiveness is unwarranted in this particular case. But I say a compassionate person doesn’t need to be willing to forgive. There’s no shame in refusing to forgive, and no excuses are necessary.

Consider, in US criminal law, criminals who express remorse might get lighter sentences, but they don’t get forgiven just because they’re remorseful. If forgiveness is not even possible in criminal law, then why should it be obligatory outside of criminal law?  And seriously, when it comes to something like rape or sexual harassment, those are crimes! Sometimes victims choose not to raise charges, but that’s not the same as forgiveness. If we have the courage to say that rape is a crime, we should also have the courage to say that some apologies should be unconditionally rejected.

In my opinion, there are three main factors which determine whether I should forgive someone: how forgivable the action was the first place, how much time has passed, and whether the person is seeking forgiveness at all. What does not play a significant role, is whether they “crushed it” in their apology.

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