When civility in modern public discourse declines, it attempts to drag other forms of decent human interaction into the murky abyss of lost social conventions.
The genuine apology, for example, teeters dangerously close to collateral damage. In the Trump world, you never apologize. You just don’t “talk about it anymore.” In the new lexicon, “I’m sorry” are dirty words.
Have you offended the parents of a war hero, an honest judge or a whole race of people? Just announce that sometimes you say the wrong things, which you regret, but don’t be specific.
If you’re an Olympic swimmer who committed a crime in a foreign country and then committed other crimes and told lies to cover it up, obfuscate your apology with sad-sack whining about your personal trauma. Forget the part about pointing a loaded gun at less-privileged third-world people.
But don’t forget when an apology is required.
For example, after 35 years of shirking its legal obligations and moral duty to carry out the terms of Mack Laing’s Last Will, which it accepted along with valuable waterfront property, his personal possessions and his money, the Town of Comox has never officially apologized for its breach of trust.
I’m sure that Laing’s family in Manitoba and Oregon would appreciate the gesture.
The problem isn’t just that the apology has fallen out of vogue. People seem to have forgotten how to do it properly. Lesson number one: atonement isn’t about you.
After a well-known actor recently made some anti-gay statements, he said, “This is heartbreaking for me.” As a corporate CEO acknowledged environmental wrong-doing, he said, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”
Confronted with the past collective sins of the town, in respect to Mack Laing’s Last Will and trust, Mayor Paul Ives has said, “That was then, this is now.” And went on to justify tearing down what Heritage B.C. considers a significant landmark.
A genuine apology doesn’t hedge. It doesn’t include modifiers that dilute personal responsibility. It doesn’t impose limits on accountability or suggest a partial defense by casting some measure of blame on those offended. It promises to do better.
Canadians are good apologizers. We’ve apologized to Chinese Canadians for a 19th Century head tax; to Japanese Canadians for stealing their property and imprisoning them in internment camps; to Inuit peoples for relocating them to a harsh place without survival assistance; and, for turning away nearly 400 Sikh migrants on the vessel, Komagata Maru over a century ago, knowing they faced certain death.
And we do apologize right.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, addressing the abuse of Indigenous Canadians in the residential school systems, he said, “Our goal, as we move forward together, is clear: It is to lift this burden from your shoulders, from those of your families and communities … It is to accept fully our responsibilities, and our failings, as a government and as a country.”
A genuine apology is often uttered to relieve a person or an organization of its guilt and shame. But the refusal to apologize attempts to mask any feeling of guilt or shame that might make the person or organization look weak or vulnerable.
Most everyone has said or done something they regret. But in the absence of any reparation, these things can hover over our sense of well-being like storm clouds. A simple, heartfelt apology can clear the air.
So, let’s not be like Trump. Let’s not apologize for apologizing, where contrition is appropriate. Let’s embrace moments of introspection that manifest in words that heal and move us forward.