David R. Henderson  

My Apologies

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As someone who has made a lot of mistakes and who tries hard to admit them and apologize when I think apologies are in order, I have become somewhat of a student of the apology. I think it's important, if you apologize, to do so sincerely and actually to admit your mistake.

"Well, of course," you might say, "what other kind of apology is there?" There are two others that I know of. In my lexicon, I call them the "Jesse Jackson" apology and the "I forgot who did it" apology.

First, the Jesse Jackson apology. In January 1984, Jesse Jackson, running for the Democratic nomination for President, referred to Jews as "Hymies" and New York city as "Hymietown." When an article in the Washington Post referenced his statements, Jackson, after first lying, saying he hadn't made these statements, ended up, according to Larry Sabato, making "an emotional speech admitting guilt and seeking atonement before national Jewish leaders in a Manchester, New Hampshire synagogue." I have insufficient reason to think it wasn't an actual apology.

But then, on a much bigger stage, the nationally televised Democratic convention in San Francisco, Jackson gave what I now call the "Jesse Jackson" apology. He said (at about the 6:20 point):

If, in my low moments, in word, deed or attitude, through some error of temper, taste, or tone, I have caused anyone discomfort, created pain, or revived someone's fears, that was not my truest self.

Why the "if?" There's no if about it. With his earlier comment, he did cause people pain.

The other apology, the "I forgot who did it apology," is so common that I'm sure you can find your own examples. The key is the passive voice. That allows the person not to identify who did the thing he is apologizing for. Some standard versions are "mistakes were made" and "things were said." Someone not paying close attention would wonder who made the mistakes and who said the things. And that's the point.

Fortunately, I've seen two apologies this week that are unusually "clean." By that I mean that the two people apologizing actually said that they were wrong and that they were sorry. The two are Jon Stewart of the Daily Show and Ben Edelman, a Harvard economics professor.

I don't want to get into whether an apology was justified in each case. Instead, I want to point out how beautifully clean both apologies were.

Here's Stewart (at about the 1:35 point), responding to a district attorney who claimed that Stewart had his facts wrong:

You were right about that. District Attorney Ramos is right. We were wrong. In our list of unarmed black men shot by police, we should not have included Dante Parker, who, according to the county medical examiner, died of a PCP overdose. So I'm sorry about that. Shouldn't have done that. AHHH! I [bleep] hate making unforced errors like this. I hate it. I get so mad at myself. Stupid, stupid, stupid [while hitting his forehead.]

Here's Edelman:
Many people have seen my emails with Ran Duan of Sichuan Garden restaurant in Brookline. Having reflected on my interaction with Ran, including what I said and how I said it, it's clear that I was very much out of line. I aspire to act with great respect and humility in dealing with others, no matter what the situation. Clearly I failed to do so. I am sorry, and I intend to do better in the future. I have reached out to Ran and will apologize to him personally as well.

Very nice.

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CATEGORIES: moral reasoning

COMMENTS (14 to date)

A third kind of non-apology, lame apology is the "Christie Apology", named after Chris Christie's press conference following Bridgegate. He started by saying "I want to apologize." Then went over an hour without saying "I apologize."

Christie might claim that saying "I want to apologize." is the same apologizing.

Well, I want to date Jennifer Lawrence, and I assure you wanting and doing are two different things.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Steve Fritzinger,
Well, I want to date Jennifer Lawrence, and I assure you wanting and doing are two different things.
Love it.

John writes:

Jon Stewart reported on that UVA rape story recently and hasn't said anything about it being false. What standard should he issue corrections?

Christophe Biocca writes:

To be fair, it isn't just him, it's an established pattern for anyone in news: Own up to small mistakes, but never to big ones.

Owning up to big mistakes means making more people aware of how frequently you get things wrong, causing people to distrust you.

Never owning up to any mistakes means you're lying and people eventually realize it and distrust you.

But the compromise position allows the watcher to believe that you'd report most mistakes, while shielding you from having to admit an entire report is false.

stargirl writes:

If you seriously wrong I think its usually a bad idea to publicly make a "good apology" if one is actually interested in improving a situation. A full apology is potentially going to open you up to viscious attacks. By apologizing you have gutted the ability of your friends and supports to defend you. Of course if you were actually in the wrong people can't defend you with truth, but they can defend you with rhetoric and social pressure. If you have publically admitted you are fully guilty for a bad crime your supporters have ground to stand on.

This might just lead to a situation getting worse. You and the people who like you are going to get very upset that you are being attacks so harshly. And so you or someone who supports you might easily lash out at the people you just apologized to. One should think very carefully whether an apology will end up helping anyone.

In a charged atmosphere its probably better to make some token apology. That way you can pretend to have apologized if people attack you, but you don't have to drop your defenses.

One lesson from warfare, as described by Steven Pinker is that "incompelte justice" is the key to peace. After a civil conflict in a country some people need to pay for their crimes. But the majority of people and even some of the leadership of the losing side should be able to get away mostly scot free. An attempt at full justice just prevents the wounds from ever healing. Instead conflict invariably errupts soon after as the losing side feels like resentful victims. both sides have a different score card of injustices and no two sides are goign to agree on whats fair.

The last paragraph was about war. But I think its also true in politics. No one is helped by throwing yourself to the wolves. In personal situations apologies to people you trust may be worthwhile. But public "true apologies" usually seem foolish to me. At least if the crime is genuinely serious*.

*If the crime is not so bad a true apology may work. For examples feminists mostly called off the attacks on shirt-gate guy.

Steve writes:

None of the above include my preferred apology, in which one asks the person offended to accept an apology.

Glen Whitman writes:

Although there's substantial overlap with your "I forgot who did it" apology, I think another important species of apology is the "I'm sorry that" apology. It apologizes for a situation: "I'm sorry that you suffered," or even less genuinely apologetic, "I'm sorry that you feel that way."

Doug writes:

While I think its a fair point that many people try to make weasel-y pseudo-apologies, I don't think its productive to be too nit-picky about it. On the flip side, empirical research shows that forgiveness is one of the most important contributing emotions to human happiness.

I worry that the lofty goal of trying to make one's own apologies high quality, may have the disadvantageous side-effect of making one too cynical about others' apologies. And that would most certainly diminish one's capacity for forgiveness, and hence happiness. After all it's only natural to apply one's standards to others.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Glen Whitman,
I often use “I’m sorry that you feel that way.” I do it, though, when I think I have done nothing wrong.

David R. Henderson writes:

You ask, "What standard should he issue corrections?” Is there a word missing? I don’t understand your question.

Greg G writes:

I'm sorry if the misinterpretation of my remarks has caused anyone to be offended.

I am not a perfect person.

Mistakes were made.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Greg G,
BTW, on a more serious note, thanks for your generous comment the other day when I actually did admit my mistake.

Roger writes:

"There's no if about it. With his earlier comment, he did cause people pain."

Really? I would be surprised if the remark caused anyone any pain. Who? Where? How?

David R. Henderson writes:

I would be surprised if the remark caused anyone any pain. Who? Where? How?
Who? Jews.
Where? I don’t know. Almost certainly in New York, though, as well as, I’m sure, elsewhere.
How? By referring to them contemptuously.

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