Have Apologies Become Meaningless?

I usually hate general critiques of modern society.  That’s not because I adore contemporary society (quite the opposite, in fact).  It’s because most of these critiques come from people who would rather characterize their failure to modernize as some kind of damning diatribe on contemporary culture.  

With that said, I have noticed a pretty annoying trend.  Since when did apologizing become so easy to demand and so easy to do?  I will admit, I am a pretty difficult person to offend.  I am, perhaps, not an ideal arbiter of what ought to be apologized for and what oughtn’t.  With that said, there is an idea that has been bandied about that I must address.  It goes something like this: if you are offended by something that someone else has done or said, you are owed an apology by that person (or that person has a responsibility to apologize to you).  

It’s difficult for me to put into words just how much I disagree.  This idea assumes so many specious things about people and their reactions.  First of all, it assumes that the feeling of being offended is always reasonable and justifiable by the person experiencing it.  I don’t claim to be able to tell someone what is “reasonable” to be offended by and what is not.  However, surely we can suggest that, throughout the entire course of human history, not all offence taken has been born equal.  Rosa Parks taking offence at being forced to sit at the back of a bus for her entire life and the offence that I take when I people tell me that “The Big Bang Theory” is a funny show are on substantially different levels.  

Now, lest you think that I am simply a bully who detests anyone who feels hurt or wronged, let me assuage you: I am against the idea that offence ALONE is grounds for apology.  That is, there is so much more that goes into whether someone is obligated to apologize (though even obligating someone to do something like apologize is problematic…more on that, later) than just offence.  Everything in this life is fact-specific, context specific and worthy of scrutiny.  It is not enough to rely on what criterion for determining the proper course of action in any enterprise, let alone one that involves human behaviour.  

Now, granted, it’s easy to imagine why such a stance is problematic.  Crazy people who do horrifically insulting things never feel they are wrong and usually have no interest in apologizing.  Fair enough.  Is the solution, then, to just require an apology or mandate one whenever anyone reports taking offence to something?  This very idea cheapens the idea of an apology and it is responsible (in my, admittedly, uneducated opinion) for one of the banes of our existence: the non-apology apology.

You’ve definitely heard it (or them) before: “I’m sorry if you were offended/I apologize if I offended you/I’m sorry that what I did offended you/I sincerely apologize for the consequences of my remarks” etc.  These “apologies” are actually worse than not apologizing at all.  I will tell you why: they are fundamentally dishonest and primarily self-serving.  To even call them true apologies is misleading.  This kind of apology is always for the consequence of whatever the act was and not the act itself.  If someone is apologizing and intending on doing it properly, two requirements need to be met: 1) the apology must be sincere and 2) the apology needs to express remorse or regret for the action or statement itself, and not only for its unintended consequences.

In the case of 1), I’m willing to bet the apology is almost never sincere when it is focussed on the consequences and not the act itself.  The reason I say this has to do with the point I made before about mandating apologies.  Trying to brow beat or compel someone into giving an apology is self-defeating. You may get one, eventually, but you will always be left to wonder if the person did it because they felt genuine remorse and reconsidered what they did, or if they apologized as a form of self-preservation.  If you are happy just receiving an apology and unconcerned with its veracity, I’m quite frankly jealous of your trusting nature.  

As for 2), there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with apologizing for consequences.  Indeed, unintended consequences are the hallmark of a little-known phenomenon known as the “accident”.  However, accidents are not the focus of this critique (which I hope is clear, otherwise I am a shit writer).  If, however, you are apologizing for something that you made a clear decision to do and that has cause hurt or offence to someone (keeping in mind the additional caveats listed above), an apology like “I am sorry for what I did” is vastly superior to “I’m sorry if you took offence to what I did”.  The former recognizes (or at least attempts to) that the actual action in question was wrong or questionable, while the latter addresses (again, mostly likely in a self-serving fashion) solely the consequences.

I feel that the ease by which a lot of society feels that apologies are owed has contributed to the phenomenon of the non-apology apology.  I think that apologies and statements of remorse or regret are deeply personal, necessarily honest displays.  It’s a shame, then, that they are so difficult to do.  But, I cannot agree with simply increasing the amount of apologies or their likelihood of being given whilst sacrificing their quality.  




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