When is an apology an apology?

17 05 2010

Language is slippery. Slopes, ditches, gullies and puddles – all traps where meanings can slither away, never to reappear in the same form. Down there, in that dark, dank environment, apologies – together with denials, evasions, retreats and whitewashings – all rub shoulders, compare notes and plan early retirements.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the domain of public apology, which is so often reduced to farce or fracas. There was the case of Catholic Bishop Richard Williamson  and his so-called apology. First he made some outlandish public statements involving Holocaust denial. Then, following the outrage expressed at his comments, the bishop issued further public statements – containing “regret” about “imprudent remarks”, and about about causing “unnecessary distress”.

Let’s look at the choice of words. First off, “imprudent”. Is this the best he can come up with? That his comments were careless? Lacking prudence? Needing care?   Is this what it’s called when you falsify history, draw demonstrably from a cache of untruths, which you then harness to an anti-Semitic agenda?

With “unnecessary distress” we have no agency, no responsibility spelled out.  On the contrary, “unnecessary” is a veritable reservoir of ambiguity, allowing Williamson to distance himself from any surrounding unpleasantness. The lurking implication is that they who take offence really shouldn’t get so hot under the collar; it’s their reaction that causes these kerfuffles; and if they just took it differently, we could all dispense with the  “unnecessary distress”. In other words, blame the victim for the fuss.

Without doubt, the underlings who draft these texts are skilled at their craft. Political correctness requires a statement, but we’ve reached the point where no one expects that the statement do anything other than fill the slot in the public conversation where a statement is needed.

We’ve forgotten that for an apology to count as an apology, a number of prevailing conditions are required. Ideally, five elements are needed:  the apology should name the behavior that’s happened; accept responsibility for it; offer an excuse or account (but not a justification) for how it came about; ask forgiveness; offer to make amends.

“Sorry for how I spoke to you in front of the boss yesterday (naming behaviour). I was totally out of line (accepting responsibility). It had been a very hard day (explaining) but it shouldn’t have happened (not justifying). Please accept my apology (asking forgiveness) and if there’s anything I can do to make up for it, please say so” (offering to make amends).

We could score an apology out of 5, by asking:

  • Is the behavior being apologized for named?
  • Is responsibility accepted?
  • Is the account more than a justification?
  • Is forgiveness sought?
  • Are amends offered?

Let’s revisit the bishop and his “regret” for  “imprudent remarks”  causing “unnecessary distress”.

  1. The behavior is diminished to the point of “imprudent remarks”, for which “regret” his mentioned. Regret does not of itself constitute an apology.
  2. No responsibility is accepted, other than admitting more care might have been taken.The implication is: if the offended were less touchy about these matters, there wouldn’t be a problem.
  3. No account is given.
  4. Regret does not automatically ask for forgiveness.
  5. No amends are mentioned.

So Bishop Williamson gets a big fat zero.

This article appeared in Spectrum, The Sydney Morning Herald, around the time of PM Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Aboriginal people of Australia.



One response

18 05 2010

thanks for sending
great comments on williamson’s pathetic response

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