DeJure and DeFacto Religious Discrimination

One of the advantages of blog writing is that at times I can follow up on past research. It becomes possible to address potential criticisms of my work without having to go through the entire process necessary for a peer review article. This is particularly useful when answering the potential issue does not require all of the statistical analysis and literature review normally expected for a research article.

The research in question comes from my book Compromising Scholarship. In this case, I am not responding to a direct attack on the findings of that book but rather an article that provides arguments that can be used to challenge those results. The basic finding of my book is that academics are willing to discriminate against religious and political conservatives when it comes to hiring those individuals for academic positions. Indeed, I found the willingness of academics to discriminate against religious conservatives to be significantly higher than their willingness to discriminate against political conservatives. I have pointed out in a previous blog, that the implication of this work is that religious discrimination is acceptable in academia as long as the “right” group faces discrimination.

Recently a Huffpo article seem to reinforce these problems. Professor Conn argues that Christian colleges should not be accredited because they do not engage in an open search for truth. He argues that there is not sufficient skepticism due to their religious foundations. On that point, I would challenge Dr. Conn, given the political nature of the protest to Regnerus’s findings, to provide evidence that traditional college and universities are open to all potential research answers. It seems that most nonreligious colleges and universities are as adverse to research with politically incorrect findings as Christian colleges are to findings that violate their theistic assumptions of reality. Conn uses as part of his argument the fact that religious schools have theological requirements for hiring. He finishes the article with stating that if faculty are fired for failing a “theological/ideological litmus tests” then they should not be able to call themselves a college or university.

This offers a potential challenge to my previous findings. Perhaps the tendency to be willing to discriminate against conservative Protestants is matched by the willingness of professors at Christian colleges to discriminate against non-Christians. Many of these Christian colleges have policies that allow them to religiously discriminate. Indeed one may argue that because of the overt nature of such policies that non-Christians face more occupational discrimination than Christians within academia. Such a charge is mitigated a bit by the fact that the number of Christian colleges and universities are relatively small in number, but it is worth considering if discrimination is potentially more prominent among Christians on religious campuses than non-Christians on secular campuses.

Conn’s argument is about the potential firing of non-Christian professors on Christian campuses. While the data from my book cannot test the willingness of academics to fire those with what they see as “unacceptable” ideologies, I can see the willingness of academics to hire those individuals. It is not unrealistic to assume that people we are less willing to hire would also be individuals that we are more willing to fire. In my research I asked academics whether they would be more or less willing to hire someone if they found out certain information about that person. I asked them to rate on a 1 to 7 whether knowing this information makes them more or less willing to hire them. Lower scores indicated less willingness to hire that individual. A 4 was scored if the information did not matter at all.

In my original finding the group that academics were less willing to hire was fundamentalists and evangelicals were the second most rejected group. As it is true in the actual academic culture, relatively few respondents worked on religious campuses. So my original findings consisted mostly of academics on non-religious campuses rejecting evangelicals and fundamentalists. Given Conn’s argument, I now question whether the rejection of fundamentalists and evangelicals by academics on non-religious campuses is less than the rejection of atheists on Christian campuses, who I would envision as the more extreme out-group to Christians. If part of the reason why Christian colleges should be not be accredited is because they have ideological barriers, then it should be the case that professors on non-religious campuses are more “fair-minded” in their response to religious out-groups.

When I looked at my results, I found that academics at religious schools were a little less likely to hire someone if they found out that person was an atheist (m = 3.684 on the 1 to 7 scale). But academics at non-religious schools were even more hesitant to hire fundamentalists (m = 3.09) and evangelicals (m = 3.352). Both means are statistically different from the atheist score at p < .0001 for fundamentalists and p < .0002 for evangelicals. Scholars at non-religious schools are more much more likely to enforce an ideological litmus test against conservative Protestants than scholars at religious schools are against atheists applying for work at their institutions. Of course it is possible that the scholars on religious campuses are not representative of the administrators enforcing religious barriers to new applicants. However, it is quite likely that scholars at religious schools understand the institutional hiring constraints and would incorporate those restraints into their answers. Conn contended that religious schools should not be accredited because they reject nonreligious scholars. My research suggests that if he is right then there are a lot of nonreligious schools that should lose their accreditation as well.

My original calculations explored all religious schools, which are the type of schools that Conn argues should lose their accreditation. However, restrictive ideology may be more of a factor at Protestant colleges and universities. To test for this possibility, I looked at the willingness of academics to hire atheists at only Protestant campuses and compared it to scholars at non-religious campuses. Scholars at Protestant campuses were less willing to hire atheists than scholars at religious campuses in general (m = 3.327). This score did not vary to a statistically significant degree than the scores given to fundamentalists and evangelicals candidates from the professors at nonreligious schools. While the score for evangelicals from scholars at nonreligious schools does not greatly differ from the atheists score, the score for atheists does seem quite a bit lower. My sample only included 55 scholars who worked at Protestant campuses and this number of respondents does not offer enough statistical power for me to have confidence in the null hypothesis comparing scholars from nonreligious schools accepting fundamentalists and scholars from Protestant schools accepting atheists.

When race/ethnicity scholars teach about racial segregation, we often talk about de facto and de jure segregation. There was segregation established by the laws of the country and that which is accomplished by the informal norms of the society. In the same manner we can talk about religious schools that may have policies that favor those of similar theological beliefs (de jure) and nonreligious schools without such official policies but have informal norms and values that act as religious restrictions (de facto). My little experiment indicates that informal norms are just as powerful, and perhaps even more powerful, than institutional rules as it concerns the establishment of ideological boundaries.

The distinctions of de jure and de facto segregation have historically been important because majority group individuals are not very receptive to dealing with racism unless they can be shown explicit rules that can be documented as racist. I suspect that many scholars contend that prejudice against conservative Protestants does not have real influence if it does not result in explicit rules that work to the disadvantage of those Protestants. But such rules are not necessary for religious prejudice to have an effect on the scholars who do not have “acceptable” religious beliefs. Since very few scholars struggle with being racist, it is easy for them to see how racial prejudice can have an effect on people of color even if such prejudice does not result in overly racist rules or laws. Yet those same scholars may have blinders to the religious biases that play themselves out even at academic institutions that pledge religious neutrality.

If we are going to use openness to accepting those with distinctive ideas from ourselves to assess accreditation, then we cannot merely eliminate religious colleges and universities with that standard. We cannot go by just the stated creeds of religious colleges and universities but also must look at the willingness of other colleges to exclude even when such exclusion is not in their official statements. Just like we cannot rely on altering de jure laws to address racial segregation, we would also have to find ways to deal with de facto ways in which academics also exclude ideological out-groups. As it concerns racial issues, measures of affirmative action not relying on documentation of overt efforts at racial discrimination have been used to address such issues. Such measures address racial inequality with timetables and goals along with requiring documentation that criteria set for jobs or educational institutions do not have a racial disparate impact. I am not certain what type of “affirmative action” type of measures we can use in an academic setting, but without such a measure, any talk about punishing Christian colleges for ideological closed-mindedness is premature.

The Righteous Mind and My Emotional Doubt

When I was in graduate school, I read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolution. That book probably influenced my thinking of how we accumulate knowledge more than any other book other than the Bible. Basically Kuhn argued that science operates in paradigms that inhibit competing ideologies and theories. Only when it is fairly clear that these paradigms are inadequate to answer the research questions they are supposed to address are they replaced by a new paradigm which answers the challenges the old paradigm was unable to answer. However, this new paradigm will also inhibit competing ideologies and theories. There goes the notion that scientists engage in an open search of truth. Scholars work towards reinforcing the current paradigm dominating the field rather than engage in an investigation that looks for answers wherever they may be.

It remains to be seen whether The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt, will have the sort of impact on my thinking as The Structure of Scientific Revolution. But it is the first book in a long time that has a chance to have such an impact. The research question in Haidt’s work concerns how we develop our moral framework. We like to think we carefully consider moral issues and only after we have thought through those issues, do we construct our moral framework. Haidt convincingly shows us that this is not the process by which this happens. Rather, we instinctively are drawn towards certain moral values and propositions. Once we have those values and propositions, we use our intellect to construct cognitive defenses for our moral beliefs. In other words, we believe that we have logically arrived at our moral conclusions when in reality we have emotionally derived those conclusions and only use our logic to address cognitive attacks on those conclusions.

The Righteous Mind also looks at the different moral values of conservatives and liberals. Haidt points out that liberals tend to concentrate on the norms of fairness and taking care of others. But conservatives have a more varied set of moral values that includes fairness and taking care of others (although conservatives do not value them as much as liberals) but also includes values of loyalty, authority and sanctity. The different sets of moral values are not indications that one group is more rational in their approach to moral issues than their political opponent. Rather both conservatives and liberals have an instinct of what they see as moral and they then find “logical” rationalizations for their moral assertions.

I have observed how individuals from different positions in the political spectrum go out of their way to find rational justifications for their moral beliefs. This is also true for those with different religious beliefs. Both Christians and atheists assert that it is rational to make their assertions about reality and the moral implications that come from those assertions. An honest person has to wonder if either group truly recognizes how much their assertions are based upon their instincts or even their possible loss of social position due to renouncing their religious or irreligious ideals.

The social position of individuals undoubtedly reinforces their emotional inclinations to hold to certain political and/or religious values. I know that it would be costly for me to renounce my faith at this point of my life. Doing so would jeopardize my standing among my Christian friends, problematize my marriage to my Christian wife and create confusion with my previous writings. It is fair to assert that I have social pressure to remain a Christian. But that pressure is no less so for the atheist. What would Richard Dawkins lose if he renounced his atheism? At least as much as I would. Those who may not have public pronouncements connected to their religious orientation still have plenty to lose if they change their orientation due to loss of friendships and status, not to mention the psychological discord that may come with making such a change.

It is fair to assert that at certain times of our lives there are social pressures as well as moral instincts driving our religious or irreligious assertions. I am at one of those times. If I want to have some confidence that my beliefs are not merely the result of the social and psychological pressures I face, I have to ask if there is a way for me to know if my rationale for those beliefs is based upon logic instead of instinct or possible loss of social position? As I consider that question, I go back to Haidt’s work. His assertions are not new but it is a new angle of what I have known since graduate school. That is the idea that we are not as rational as we claim to be. Yet his discussion of instinct overriding our logic does produce a different dimension for me. It tells me that emotional desire often predicts our moral and spiritual beliefs. We have an emotional desire to see something as true and then we look for evidence for its truth. If I have emotional and personal reasons to hold onto my Christian faith then I can never be certain that I am holding on to that faith because I have rationally come to the conclusion it is true or because I want it to be true to meet my social and emotional needs.

That assertion provides a way to explore our own presuppositions. We can explore them by asking the question of whether there has ever been a time in which we emotionally wanted our current beliefs to be untrue. This means that I have to ask the question of whether I wanted my faith to be untrue. If during my entire life I have never wanted my current religious belief to be untrue then I cannot be sure if I have that belief due to my desires or my assessment of the evidence around me. Haidt’s work forces me to ask the question of whether there has ever been a time in which I did not have the social conditions that support me in my beliefs and that I actually did not want my Christian beliefs.

I did have such a time in my life. In the late 1980s, when I was in graduate school, I lost a romantic relationship with a good Christian white woman because her mom did not like the idea of her dating a black man. Her mother was not a Christian and in fact considered herself a radical feminist, so her assertions did not challenge my faith. But my ex-girlfriend’s Christian friends were happy to see our relationship end. It seems that they also were uncomfortable with the idea of interracial romance. These were supposedly good Christian people displaying this cruel racism which impacted my life. It forced me to question the worth of a religion that seemly encouraged others to accept racism. I was in graduate school and not engaged in any ministry at the time. I had quite a few non-Christian friends in my graduate school that did not seem to be tied to the ugly racism I was seeing. They would have been more supportive than my Christian friends. Putting together a narrative of having “grown” out of my faith due to what I learned in graduate school would have been quite acceptable to them. I could drop my faith with relatively little costs and with social networks among my friends in graduate school who were already prepared to support my planned apostasy.

Emotionally, I did not want to be a Christian at that point in my life. I wanted to find justification to leave my Christian faith and to gain freedom to chart my own course. The problem was that I had done quite of bit of reading from Christian intellectuals. If I had only been exposed to the arguments put forth by my non-Christian friends and in many of my classes, then I would not have any cognitive basis for keeping my Christian beliefs. But my previous readings forced me to not head in an emotional direction. Instead, I carefully considered whether I wanted to stay a Christian. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that remaining a Christian was the most logical thing I can do. Since I want to use this blog to concentrate on social science analysis rather than apologetical work, I will not discuss the arguments that convinced me, but they had to be powerful given my desire to leave my faith. Despite my emotional desires, the argument for what I believed was stronger than the arguments against those beliefs.

From that time, I have continued to develop in my faith. It was slow for a while after my time of doubt but eventually my faith has continued to emerge from that dark spiritual time. I have never been as open to leaving my faith as I was after that time of doubt. It is probably not realistic to continue living a state of doubt about what is important to us. We need to believe in something that is important if our lives are to have a sense of meaning and purpose. I am honest about my lack of motivation to leave my faith today; however, that does not take away from the fact that there was a time in which I doubted my beliefs, and ultimately that time help provide me comfort with the knowledge that I was willing at one point of my life and have tested my current belief system.

The fact that I was willing to test my religious beliefs is not an assurance that those beliefs are true. Naturally I believe them to be true or else I would not maintain them. However, being willing to test them at a time when I had emotional incentives to drop those beliefs provides for me an answer to the challenge embedded in The Righteous Mind. That challenge is some comfort that the moral system I have developed from my Christian presuppositions are not merely due to my instinct from the time I adopted them. If they were due only to emotional instinct then I certainly would have dropped those beliefs when I no longer had that emotional incentive. I was quite bitter at my ex-girlfriend, her mother and her Christian friends at the time of the breakup. Looking back now, I feel blessed by those events as they supplied the emotional energy to force me into the type of introspection that not everyone gets to experience. When I have doubts today, I can rely on that time when I was motivated to leave my faith to offer me reassurances. Ironically, having a time of real doubt can strengthen, instead of weaken, one’s confidence in his/her beliefs.

I like to think that we all have that experience in our lives. But I am realistic to know that individuals tend to work hard to avoid challenging their core presuppositions about reality. Confirmation bias is a powerful social factor and we too often underestimate its ability to rob us of our ability to be objective. That bias helps us maintain social networks of like-minded individuals, dismiss threatening arguments with a degree of rigor we do not use on supporting arguments, and devalue those who disagree with our core beliefs. We have a challenge to ask ourselves whether we have ever really interrogated our beliefs at a time when we emotionally wanted to let go of them. Or have we always relied on the initial instinctual sentiments we had when we constructed our current moral system?

To be sure there are some arguments by Haidt that I had a hard time accepting. For example, he points to evolution as the source of our moral development. I have a hard time using evolutionary theory in this way (And please I am not looking for a fight on evolution. I am not challenging biological evolution with that statement but rather evolution as a source for social mechanisms). The shortcomings of sociobiology make me quite uncomfortable with the evolutionary argument. Despite that shortcoming, Haidt forces us to question our ability to maintain our objectivity in much the same way that Kuhn did with his classic work. Perhaps those are the types of challenges which allow me to have an affinity for both academic pieces of work since they remind us of the importance to ask questions not only of others but most importantly of ourselves.

Intolerant of the Intolerant? No, Just Intolerant

Okay, I admit that I am a big fan of comic superheros. I have been since I was a kid. It is fun to think about what we can do with superpowers. Of course in the comic books the superpowers have to deal with enhanced physical, and sometimes mental, abilities. This gives heros the ability to overpower the “bad guys.” But it is kind of cool to think about intellectual nerd “superpowers.” For example, having the power to induce questions from students when they are confused instead of having them just look back at me with blank faces would be a great power to have. That would make for a more enriching academic environment. But it would not make for an interesting comic book scene, and so I would not expect Marvel or DC to provide one of their heros with that power any time soon.

However, a really nice superpower to provide better discourse would be the ability to ban misused phrases. These are the sort of phrases which makes the person saying the phrase feel good but really does not further our discourse. If I had that power, then the phrase I would like to ban is “intolerant of the intolerant.” Instead, the person should just be honest and say, “I’m intolerant because I do not like them.” Because ultimately that is what intolerance is about and legitimating it with an excuse of why a person is intolerant does not remove the reality of that intolerance.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, there are two definitions of intolerant that do not deal with physiological issues. The first is “unable or unwilling to endure” and the second is “unwilling to grant or share social, political, or professional rights.” When people talk about being intolerant of the intolerant, they generally are not overtly planning on taking away the rights of those they are intolerant towards, although they may end up doing just that with measures with disparate impact. Thus, the first definition should be the working definition for the balance of this blog entry. Those who use the intolerant of the intolerant term are basically saying that they are unwilling to endure others because they are unwilling to endure those they disagree with politically, socially or religiously. There really is no difference, as it concerns the action of intolerance, between those using this term and those they see as intolerant. Those they see as intolerant are intolerant towards those they do not like just like those who state that they are “intolerant of the intolerant.” Both groups are intolerant, but the group they are intolerant towards differs.

All of us are intolerant. I am intolerant in certain ways. When I was single, I was intolerant of the idea of dating a woman who did not share my similar Christian beliefs. No matter how beautiful, charismatic, smart or any other wonderful quality a woman had, if she did not have my Christian values, then I put any idea of romance completely out of my mind. This is intolerance as I am unwilling to endure a romantic relationship with a woman who does not share my Christian beliefs. I have my reasons for this intolerance, and so if someone accused me of being intolerant, I could provide those reasons. But at the end of the day, I have to admit that I was intolerant. There are plenty of other people who are not intolerant in that specific way since they are open to romance no matter the religion of their potential partner. But they may be intolerant in other ways when it comes to that potential partner. In fact the term “dealbreaker” is how we identify our romantic intolerances.

There is another way I am intolerant. I am personally intolerant of ideas I disagree with. I am unwilling to endure, or accept, ideas that I believe to be wrong. So I believe that I am right about certain ideas and that others are wrong. This does not mean that I hate those with whom I disagree. But if a person believes in anything strongly then they strongly disagree with other ideas. As a Christian, I disagree with those with different religious beliefs. I may be right or they may be right. But it is important to acknowledge that we are in disagreement. So I can be rightly accused of being intolerant in that I am unwilling to accept ideas that I disagree with.

But I am not alone in that type of intolerance. There are people who are not intolerant when it comes to religious beliefs since religious questions are not something they think about very much. But they may be politically intolerant. They may be “intolerant” towards political ideas of global warming is a myth or of those who support Obamacare. They are unwilling to accept those ideas and strongly disagree with those who have them. Others are intolerant as it concerns lifestyles. For example, there are vegetarians and vegans who are intolerant of the idea that it is acceptable to eat meat. It is possible that there are people without any strong convictions and tolerate any idea out there. But such creatures must certainly be rare. I speculate that 99.9 percent of us have some degree of intolerance because we believe some idea to be right and other ideas to be wrong.

Consequently, it is not enough to state that a person is intolerant. It is also important to know what we mean by intolerance. Do we mean a type of intolerance by which we decide who we are going to interact with on a romantic, or even friendship, level? Do we mean intolerance in that we have strongly held ideas and thus to not tolerate alternate ideas that we see as incorrect? This is a type of intolerance that most of us are willing to accept. But usually when people talk of intolerant of the intolerant, they do not have such a benign meaning of intolerance. Instead, they are indicating an intolerance that is an unfair rejection of those who do not deserve to be rejected. Their comment about being intolerant of the intolerant is a suggestion that those who receive their hatred deserve to be rejected.

So let us get to the core of the matter. In my classes, I often teach that there are no truly tolerant subcultures. All subcultures have out-groups which they are not willing to endure. For some, it is feminists and atheists. For others, it is conservative Christians and NRA members. But all groups have some degree of intolerance. They believe that certain groups deserve to be rejected. The reasons why such groups deserve to be rejected clearly vary. But the willingness not to endure certain groups is the same impulse regardless if we are talking about Christians fundamentalists, Islamic radicals, feminist activists or GLBT advocates. How each of these groups express their intolerance differs, but the general impulse to be intolerant is the same. We all have our reasons why we have intolerance towards certain individuals. The reasons are not equally beneficial and it may be fair to say that some groups deserve to be rejected more than others. But to come to that conclusion we need to discuss reasons for our intolerance rather than inadequately attempting to justify that intolerance by stating that others are intolerant as well.

When the person exclaims that they are intolerant of the intolerant, they are trying to justify their intolerance. But all intolerant individuals attempt to justify their intolerance. They possess scorn and alienation towards the members of those outgroups and thus they are intolerant. It is fair to argue that individuals have good reasons for being intolerant to certain groups. But to make that argument, an individual has to show why the members of the outgroups are wrong. That can lead to a rational discussion about which ideas or practices are better. But the intolerant of the intolerant comment is meant to short-circuit that discussion. The members of the outgroup are conceptualized as wrong merely because they are intolerant, even though the person himself or herself has also admitted to being intolerant. This attempted labeling of intolerance is a way to dismiss those one disagrees with without having to engage in the ideas of that person. This is the sort of dodge that persuades me to have the superpower to ban the phase “intolerant of the intolerant.” No, you are just intolerant.

In my ideal world, ideas would compete with each other without the propensity to label those with different ideas with pejorative terms that shut off debate. If a group has ideas that are wrong then we owe it to them, and to those listening to us, to show them why their ideas are wrong rather than stigmatize them into silence. Ironically, what the “intolerant of the intolerant” assertion does is allow individuals to mistreat those who are members of the outgroup without offering a real critique of the ideas offered by those in the outgroups. It has the pretention of asserting that one is right without the burden of showing why that person is right. Since I want a society where there are at least reasonable attempts at rational discourse, I want to have the superpower to ban the term “intolerant of the intolerant.”

From this day on, when I hear someone state that they are intolerant of the intolerant then in my mind I just think, “Oh, you’re intolerant.” The person may think that his or her intolerant is different in type from the intolerance of those he or she wants to criticize but in reality this is not the case. Will I tell that person to his or her face “Oh, you’re intolerant”? That depends of course on the context of the social situation and especially on whether I would embarrass my wife with my statement (sleeping on the couch is not fun). But regardless of whether I state the line or not, it is what I will think when someone attempts to claim a false superiority with an intolerant of the intolerant line.

Finally, it behooves me to mention that accusations of intolerance are not the only ways people attempt to shut up those they are debating against. Other accusations of bigotry, hatred, prejudice, and similar terms are also used to shut down debate rather than deal with different ideas. The challenge for those who use those terms is to assess whether they are using them to shut off debate about what they see as unpleasant ideas. Such individuals would also benefit from introspection in which they can explore whether they are as guilty of the bigotry, hatred or prejudice they accuse others of having. Because it does not rationalize intolerance when you aim that intolerance at those you define as intolerant. It only means that you are intolerant.

How to Apologize

I admit that a lot of research in academic journals does not really help the common person. Some of it is political posturing and some of it deals with theoretical or exotic topics that simply will not impact most of us. But every now and then there is a paper that really can help everyone in society. In this case everyone in society is everyone who ever has had to apologize. According to my theological beliefs that is everyone but Jesus. That paper was authored by Karen Cerulo and Janet Ruane. The name of the article is “Apologies of the Rich and Famous: Cultural, Cognitive, and Social Explanations of Why We Care and Why We Forgive.” It is in the Social Psychology Quarterly 77 (2).

Cerulo and Ruane do something quite clever. They look at public apologies and use public opinion polls to assess which ones are accepted and which ones are not. Based on the level of acceptance the apologies generate allows them to determine potential factors that make an apology more, or less, likely to be accepted. To be sure, there are weaknesses in this paper, and it should not be seen as the final word on this subject. Rarely in the social sciences is any paper in a position to be seen as the final word of a subject. However, I do not want to dwell on the possible shortcomings of the paper; I will leave that to future researchers, and instead look at the insight we can gain through this work. There are lessons to be learned from apologies of the famous that can be applied to the apologies of us common folks.

Before I get to the heart of what is insightful about this work, I want to look at the implications of one of the findings of the authors that some may overlook. Generally speaking, those who make the apology are more powerful than those being apologized to. This may be due to the nature of the type of apology that the authors have studied. They are studying public apologies and those in the public are more likely to be powerful than other individuals. Having power is one of the reasons why a person would have a public presence. Nevertheless, the call for an apology may be something that the powerful have to be more mindful of doing than the relatively powerless. Indeed, those without power are likely to be consistently aware of their need to express regret for their errors since they are more likely to be in a position to be punished by those they offended. The powerful are likely to forget the need to apologize and thus the lessons offered in this article may apply more to the powerful than the powerless. I suspect that it is the powerful that are less open to being sufficiently contrite when they are in the wrong. So this finding suggests that when we gain power, we need to work at being mindful of situations where we may need to apologize since we can be tempted to use our power to ignore the need to apologize.

By the way, when sociologists talk about the powerful, they usually are talking about whites, males, the rich etc. There is good reason to talk about individuals with these traits as it concerns being powerful. But it is useful to remember that power is contextualized. In a predominately black high school, the white sophomore is not likely to feel a great deal of racial privilege. Although Christianity is the majority religion in the United States, as I pointed out in my last blog entry, on certain college campuses they are the ones who lack power relative to other individuals. Thus, as we consider whether we are the powerful or the powerless, we have to be aware of the context of our situation. Failure to have this awareness may fool us into thinking that we have little or no power in a given situation where in reality we have a good deal of power. This misinterpretation of the situation sometimes can lead us to not recognizing our need to apologize since we see ourselves as victims rather than perpetrators.

Okay. So if we find ourselves with the need to apologize what does this research suggest? The authors identify different types of apologies. There are apologies where the offender focuses on his or herself. It may be something like “I was caught in a bad situation and did wrong” or “My actions really do not reflect who I am.” There are apologies that focus on the victim. It can be something like “What happened to that man was wrong. I cannot imagine what I put him through.” It should come as no surprise that apologies that focus on the victim are much better than those that focus on the offender. Apologies that focus on the offender have the stronger possibility of denial and evasion. An apology that attempts to minimize the guilt of the offender is not an apology likely to be well received.

But it is not enough for the offender to focus the apology on the victim instead of on his/herself. The authors point out the importance of what they term “message sequencing.” What this means is that when we say something, we signal to those listening to us what to expect next. When we deliver what they expect, then there is a higher chance that they will accept it. So if we start talking about how badly we treated the victim but end our apology statement with some measure of justification for our actions then we likely have an apology that will not be well received. What the authors point out is that apologies that start with a focus on the victim and then either move to remorse or corrective action are the apologies that are most likely to be accepted. An example of remorse is a statement such as “I deeply regret what I did to Mrs. Smith.” Corrective action is when the offender announces what changes he or she is going to make so that the offence does not happen again. Thus a man apologizing for losing his temper to his wife may end with assurances that he is going to get professional anger management counseling. If you are in a situation where you need to apologize, the key is to start with a statement about how the victim was badly treated and to end the apology with remorse unless there is some corrective action you can take to make sure that your offence does not happen again. The authors do not necessarily find that corrective action is better than remorse, but it seems to me more reassuring to know the offender has a specific plan to change rather than only offering a statement of remorse. But then again, that is just me.

Reading the article helped me to further reflect on the effectiveness of an apology. There are situations where people are asking for an apology and the alleged offender does not feel that one is needed. I think this is what results in the “If anyone was offended by my actions then…”. Those apologies almost never work and this research suggests why. They are apologies that minimize the offence. The offender is trying to lessen the grief he or she is receiving for the action but since people do not accept the apology, there is little relief. In fact, and once again these are my thoughts and not from the article, a non-apology apology can sometimes make things worse.

This brings me to a somewhat controversial assertion. This is especially controversial considering that I approach moral decisions from a Christian perspective and a major part of that perspective is the recognition of our own human depravity. But my conclusion is that we should only apologize when we are convinced we have done something wrong. We should be very open about the possibility that we are in the wrong. It becomes so easy for us to find rationalizations for our actions. But if we have done a great deal of soul-searching and honestly feel that we have not done wrong then we should be honest. There may be a misunderstanding that needs to be cleared up. It may be that someone is attempting to manipulate a situation to put a person on the defensive. You and the other person may operate from a different set of moral standards, and you simply cannot accept what they say is your offense. There may be blame that should go to others instead of the person seen as the offender. But if a person has tried to see if he or she was in the wrong and comes to the conclusion that he or she is not in the wrong, then honesty demands no apology.

Do not get me wrong. I believe in apologies. And I want to emphasis that it is important to make an honest assessment of what we have potentially done wrong before refusing to apologize. Often what we originally thought was innocent turns out to not be so benign. I have offered apologies in the past and I will offer them in the future. Thanks to the work in this article, I will ideally do a better job of offering them in the future. But I also value honesty. If we are going to have good interpersonal relationships then we must be honest. At times it may seem easy to offer a weak apology so that this box can be checked and a person can try to avoid an unpleasant accusation. In the past, I have done just that. But this research suggests that people can see through an insincere apology. The tougher route may be to work though the misunderstandings to see if what a potential perpetrator did was indeed wrong and if not then how these misunderstandings can be avoided in the future.

Well, the next time I have to apologize I now have a framework to use for that apology. Apologize by focusing on the wrong done to the victim and then move to corrective action if possible and/or remorse if that is not possible. If we do this when we have offended others, then we have a chance to have our apology accepted and continue the relationship developed with those individuals.


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