The most basic fact about an apology is that it’s a social act. Both the mistake that inspires it and the apology itself are carried out on a stage on which more than one person is involved.
Meaning: An apology must be given, and it must be received. Which means there is a dynamic between apologizer and apologizee, or mistake-maker and mistake victim (or audience).
If we believe, as I think we do, that the maker of a mistake has some sort of social duty to attempt to balance the scales, we have to also believe that this attempt must be given a fair go. In other words, those of us on the receiving end of the apology have a duty too.
Not just to listen.
Not just to allow the apology to take place.
But also to open ourselves to the apology, to judge it fairly. To allow ourselves, if it meets our moral criteria, to be swayed by it. To allow the pan on our side of the scale to move.
(Side note: I should say right here that, to me, there are some things that are unforgivable. I see stories in the news every few years where a family member of a murdered person shows up at the parole hearing of the killer, and says “I’ve completely forgiven Punkass McNasty, and I appeal to this august board to grant him parole.” I find it very hard to think I could ever do that. I do know that forgiveness of others is in large part something you grant yourself, so that you can free yourself of this experiential millstone and move on with life. But – damn! – there are limits.)
But even before the offering of an apology, I think those of us in the social pool with mistake-makers have some sort of obligation. Something we require of ourselves in the viewing of mistakes. Which, after all, we all frequently make.
I used the term “grief-space” in a previous post to describe the social space I think we should give people suffering the loss of a loved one – social space to both feel and express the loss so we can work through grief.
I have a similar term – “friend-space” – I’ll use here to describe a social atmosphere that accepts mistakes, and whatever apologies that follow, as very human things. It doesn’t mean you have to forgive at the mere mention of an apology. But it does mean you sort of have to listen, and be open to the possibility of forgiveness.
Friend-space is probably best described in light of its opposite. I don’t have a name for it, but every person who reads this will recognize it:
The opposite of friend-space is a social meanness that consists of
1) the unwillingness to see mistakes as anything but deliberate. In other words we imagine the act as something done in full, conscious knowledge of its wrongness,
2) the belief that mistakes are deep indicators of character, that the person doing them is a sociopath who simply doesn’t care who he hurts or offends, and
3) the unwillingness on the part of the witness or victim to accept, or even listen to, an attempted apology.
As I say, yes, some things are unforgivable. But unforgiveness should be reserved for murder, rape, deliberately cutting off your leg with a chainsaw, things like that.
Otherwise, in the same way that constant use of the word “fuck” dilutes its impact when you really do need it, the belief that EVERY single mistake must be met with a nuclear-level reaction leads to … well, to a society in which forgiveness is impossible, where nobody dares make a mistake, and where – because we all WILL make mistakes, and constantly – we’re all forced to live with a high level of meanness.
To the metaphor-maker in my head, there is a sort of speed-bump, a raise in the pavement, that resists progress in any positive direction. It’s sort of like, no matter what your direction or goal, you have to START by hiking up a bit of a hill before the ground finally flattens out and you can begin to make good headway.
That hill can be fairly flat and easily conquered – I want to start wearing low-rise socks with my gym shoes instead of the high-rise ones.
Or it can be steep and long and virtually impossible to get over – I want to go to the gym for two hours, five days a week, and have a good hard workout with the weights.
You can accomplish the first one just by buying the socks you like and tossing them in your gym bag. That’s a very low hump, easy to conquer.
But, oh boy, good luck with that second one. You’re going to have to rearrange your daily schedule. Commit to going to the gym every day. Convince yourself every time you go, even in the midst of serious muscle fatigue, to STAY there and keep working out. That’s a BIG hump to get over.
EVERY change in direction requires the conquest of one of these humps. A cost. You might want to admit to being wrong, change an engrained habit, take your lumps for hurting someone – in each case, the act is energy-intensive or emotionally painful.
But in the case of mistakes and apologies, SOME of that cost is laid on the mistake-maker by the people around him.
I once made what I considered to be a gentle, mildly humorous comment on a feminist site, and some of the other readers took extreme exception to it. I was suddenly Mr. Hitler the Woman Hater, and commenters from the site actually pursued me to other blogs to tell people what a hateful, abusive shit I was. It went on for more than a week.
The whole thing was so painful, so dismaying, that I hesitated for some time – even years later in the writing of this piece – to even mention it. I was afraid that someone would say “Oh, now I remember, YOU’RE that Cock-Nazi bastard who wants women to suffer and die!”
There definitely are people out there – I instantly think of certain right-wingers – who would gleefully ride over the rights, and even the lives, of some of us on the left, and think nothing of it. And they deserve their lumps.
That pepper-spraying idiot cop at UC Davis, the one who calmly assaulted peaceful students sitting on the ground, sending some of them to the hospital … if I read that he’d been attacked by a mob of angry parents and beaten with shovels, I’d slap my knees, double over with laughter, and send every parent a Christmas card with a $20 bill inside.
Whatever penance HE might choose to offer – and I doubt he ever will, because he really DOES strike me as a sociopathic fuck, in an environment that encourages sociopathic fucks – there should be a HUGE hill he has to get over. Resigning, personally apologizing to every person he sprayed, personally paying their medical bills, personally apologizing to their parents, personally apologizing to UC Davis and the Davis, California community, and then committing himself to a couple of days a week of volunteering at an animal shelter, THAT might be a start.
But for the rest of us, who hurt people by mistake and not because we’re evil, the hill should be low, and possible to transit.
Unfortunately, the threshold of penance – the social cost of even minor mistakes, and of fixing them – is currently very, very high.
Which is bad not so much because it unduly punishes any particular possibly-innocent transgressor, but because it raises a certain bar of fear on all of us.
It diminishes the freedom to experiment – with new ideas, new possibly-offensive opinions. Even with humor.
The way I see it, as you get older, with the helpful guidance of your friends and neighbors, you should get progressively stronger and more apt to be react appropriately and fairly. You should become more targeted toward compassion and understanding.
What you should NOT get is more fearful, more rigid. What you should not get is less willing to go balls-out on the wild edge of life, where creative, interesting new things can happen. What you should not get is so vigilant of every word coming out of your mouth or your pen that you fail to say anything at all.
Because face it – there are people like our beloved Christopher Hitchens who had balls of brass and rhino-thick hide, who could take the slings and arrows of his detractors and toss them back with an uproariously delightful cutting remark. And there are the cream puffs among us with paper-thin skin and sensitivity dialed up to 10.
That second group might have ideas every bit as interesting and worth listening to as anything of Hitchens’. In fact, it’s likely that such sensitive people DO have plenty we should hear, and they should be encouraged to say it.
(There’s also the somewhat-annoying fact that, though you might hotly disagree with Bob Smith on the justification of the war in Iraq, you might find Bob Smith is a man after your own heart when it comes to the desperate needs of homeless dogs and cats.)
But in a mean social environment, one which punishes mistakes or unusual ideas with the insistence that the person saying them is not just wrong, but evil, we might never hear from these shy ones. And we certainly would never work with those across-the-aisle people on these other issues that we do mutually agree upon.
I want to live in a culture where the making of jokes, the making of mistakes, is encouraged at least this much: That the cost of fixing the bad parts, for someone truly repentant, is affordable.
Those of us in the audience should definitely continue to critique, criticize, and correct, anytime we see fit.
But we should also CONSIDER. Consider that there is a broader social context for every act, and that our goal is to increase diversity of voices, so that the unexpected good new ideas get through.
And certainly consider, if the person you’re mad at has previously shown every sign that he or she is on your own team, that even a little extra leeway might be in order on the parts where you differ.
So where does this leave us vis a vis apologies?
Exactly here: Assuming they’re willing to offer one, you should be inclined to give people
1. Gracious acceptance of their admission of a mistake.
2. A willing effort to understand their explanation.
3. Gracious reception of their willingness to accept responsibility.
4. The hearing of their apology.
5. The willingness to allow them to fix what they broke.
6. A genteel openness to their promise never to do it again.
7. The teaming-up with them to help them remember it. Not by bringing it up over and over and beating them over the head with it, but by gentle, friendly, “I’ve done the same damned thing and I just thought I’d remind you” input.
We should also remind ourselves, constantly, that it’s better to operate in friend-space, where we ourselves – mistake-makers all – will probably someday benefit from it.
Even if no apology is forthcoming, the disagreement may be tolerable … at least to the point that it’s possible to cooperate on other, perhaps more important, issues.