Deconstructing and Reconstructing the Apology (further thoughts from a law student)

Mitchell Hamline student, Matthew Yost, wrote these reflections on the complex process of apology, and the need, ultimately for redemption.

It’s difficult not to feel as if we are in the middle of a watershed moment for people—most often men—behaving badly. High profile instances of harassing and assaultive behavior have risen to the top of our collective consciousness, but a deeper and more pervasive culture of misbehavior has leached into all aspects of contemporary society. This phenomenon—dangerous, frustrating, consistent—sparks a social master plot that generally concludes with an apology.

Apologizing for bad behavior is a fundamental human supposition, so much so that it is one of the simplest concepts that children are taught and expected to replicate. Apologies are key to redemption, the process by which people who misbehave are socioculturally reset.

Despite their apparent simplicity, apologies are layered in their complexity—or at least, they ought to be. Apologies are meant to show contrition, that the person apologizing has recognized the way their behavior upset cultural norms and expectations and that they are acting to improve. Lately, though, the arc of the redemptive master plot has been eroded by ubiquity and a fundamental misunderstanding.

Take an example. A media figure is found to have engaged in a pattern of sexual harassment against colleagues in the recent past. The behavior is met with a mixed response, with some believing that the man’s actions were simply old-fashioned—unacceptable and gross, but harmless. Nevertheless, the man is spotlighted and criticized, though there is no legal response to his actions. Facing mounting pressure, the man publicly apologizes, the substance of the statement something like, “I regret if my behavior caused offense, it wasn’t my intention. I hope we can put this ugliness behind us and move forward from here.” The performance complete, the news cycle shifts, and the man continues forward with his life and career with little impact from this event.

Sound familiar? A generic apology, directed at no one, acknowledging no actual responsibility. Often, this is because a person is unwilling to accept or admit their wrongdoing. When there is no cultural recourse for a person’s poor apology, what incentive is there to hold oneself responsible? In fact, the reverse seems true: The weaker and less responsive the apology, the more a wrongdoer is rewarded and the faster their actions are forgotten.

How can we improve this situation? Forcing a person to accept responsibility is at best an uphill battle, at worst an exercise in futility. There remains, however an active cultural role in deconstructing and reconstructing this narrative.

To start, an apology should never be absolute. Its substance can’t be contained in a one-off statement at a press conference. Rather, an apology is a continually negotiated act requiring diligence and focus and reaffirmation. A person whose apology does not comport to this expectation should be corrected and pressured again and again until they understand this. If they still can’t change, their apology is simply unacceptable.

Second, it’s critical to recognize that “apologize” is a verb. By its nature, an apology requires action. Again, a statement of apology is a fine first step, but what comes after the statement is far more critical. Only in taking action is the extent of a person’s commitment to contrition truly put on display. There’s no prescribed action that needs to be taken for every apology; such actions should be guided and informed by whatever the apology stems from. Maybe it’s the simple act of listening; maybe it’s engagement with those who have been negatively impacted by the  actions; and maybe it’s working to address the damaging assumptions that inform and underlie bad behavior. Always, the action should involve a commitment to assure that whatever the person did never happens again.

Finally, a critical component of an apology is its acceptance. Too often, this is the beginning and end of the act. “I’m sorry” is followed reflexively by “it’s okay.” In instances where an apology is directed at a specific person, the instinct to accept immediately should be critically reexamined. If the previously-mentioned components of a “correct” apology are absent, what incentive is there to accept? Maybe acceptance is altogether inappropriate. Maybe acceptance should always be conditional. Like the accompanying action, it seems that there’s not one simple means or process for accepting an apology. Embracing the discomfort that comes with that uncertainty is useful for both the person apologizing and the people being apologized to. It acknowledges that an apology is a social construct, but one that is critical to our collective cultural evolution.

Is this setting up an impossible scenario? Am I asking too much? Critical engagement with the concept of the apology is certainly new and challenging, but is the status quo of the current Apology Industrial Complex really yielding positive results? Like most of our tired master plots, the apology seems ripe for revision.

There is an obvious and important disclaimer here: As a culture, it’s important that we don’t abandon redemption. If people are never redeemed, there would be no justification for apology. What are we going to do with all of the people in this world who have made a mistake, who have lied, who have harassed, who have assaulted if they become irredeemable? That may be difficult to hear and accept. (It’s difficult to write.) People act with selfish disregard and their actions have consequences that are visceral: sharp, painful, and lasting. But if we cannot somehow accept these people, we risk further eroding ourselves and our society. All this being said, redemption requires something far more than saying “I’m sorry.”