DeGeneres during her widely panned apology for creating a toxic work environment

Why is it so hard to give a good apology?

Most public apologies, as far as I can tell, are ineffective. Generally, they don’t seem to improve the situation — either materially or emotionally — for the wronged parties, and they usually lead to a further reduced social status for the person doing the apologizing despite their efforts to “do the right thing.” Might we be better off simply doing away with public apologies all together? Perhaps, the entire concept of “apology” isn’t actually a very useful one, even in our personal lives?

One of the typical complaints that people make, when harshly judging an apology, is that the person giving the apology doesn’t seem remorseful. “They’re not sorry they did it, they’re sorry they got caught” seems to be how the sentiment goes. And the thing is… only being sorry “they got caught” is actually extremely predictable. Expecting it to be any other way, is to misunderstand human nature. Because here’s the problem:

  1. Before the instigator got “caught” or “called out” they probably didn’t know anything was wrong. Assuming we’re dealing with someone ignorant and not malicious, they were probably causing pain without knowing any better. And, they would have continued causing pain to people until someone told them what they’re doing was harmful.
  2. After they get “called out”, the overriding emotion the instigator is likely to feel is shame. Shame is an emotion that shuts down our capacity for empathy. Shame is an emotion that is, functionally, an overwhelming fear response about being excluded or shunned from society. This causes the shamed person to direct most of their energy inward, towards self preservation and survival, rather than outward towards others.

So, what we have here, is a bit of a paradox. In order for someone to be aware that they need to apologize for something, we need to highlight to them that they’re doing something damaging — but, the act of informing them that they’re hurting other people is likely to make them less able to empathize with the hurt they have caused.

Added to this paradox, especially in the case of a celebrity or politician apology, is an additional unfortunate component that we rarely discuss directly; power. Often times, people calling someone out for doing something “wrong” are looking to reduce the power of this person — and, perhaps for a good reason. If someone is causing harm in their position of power, reducing that power may potentially be a vehicle for reducing that harm. However, the goal on the behalf of the apologizer is to maintain their power as much as possible.

Yet, the power play involved in apology is rarely discussed or highlighted directly.

Interestingly, in one of my favorite interpersonal communication tools, NVC, you don’t do apologies.

That’s right. Non-Violent Communication (aka NVC) is a framework for helping you to develop a communication style that emphasizes empathy and understanding of the need of others and they do away with apologies almost completely.

Why is that?

Well. The history of apologies in Western society has a particular flavor; most especially, it has a slightly capitalist flavor to it, as “apology” implies “seeking forgiveness”, and the initial concept of “forgiveness” came about when “forgiving” material debts for a greater societal good (these concepts that are still around, in the form of things like bankruptcy law.)

[T]he meaning of forgiveness is grounded in the language of debt. In days of yore (and, in some cultures, not so yore), when I impugned your honor, I incurred an obligation to you, a debt that had to be paid somehow. From there, the notion developed that when I do any kind of wrong, to you or anyone else, I have incurred a debt, to you or to society or to God.

… if I am in debt to you, and am unable or unwilling to honor the debt, you can choose to use whatever power you have to compel me to make good on what I owe, or you can choose to forgive the debt.

… Forgiveness releases me from my obligation to you and from the threat that you will bring those instruments of power to bear on the issue. In this sense, forgiveness is itself an exercise of that power.

Forgiveness is not Buddhist by Ken McLeod

The act of needing forgiveness implies that you have incurred a debt of some kind against an individual or group of people. And, when you are in debt to some entity, that person (or people) has power over you — and, maybe they like having power over you. Maybe they don’t want to give that up so easily, right?

So, what is interesting, is in our culture — usually, the existence of the need for apology is the exhibition of a power imbalance. For instance, if you apologize regularly to your partner, but your partner never apologizes to you this is an indicator that your partner has more power in the relationship than you. It can be for many reasons; maybe you cheated, so you’re constantly apologizing — in which case your act of cheating reduced your power in the relationship, and your apologizing functions as a way of attempting to restore your power. However, maybe your partner is abusive and constantly criticizes you, and you keep apologizing to keep the peace. In this case, your partner is attempting to maintain higher power in the relationship by dominating you.

When it comes to celebrities, and politicians, and public apologies, what has usually happened is that the public has exerted their power over the celebrity. Although unpredictable and unwieldy, the power of the public is actually the strongest power available to humans. Even if you consider dictators, like Putin and Kim Jong-un, they devote enormous resources into influencing and controlling public opinion, because they know without the support of the public their regimes will fall. In fact, if even only 3 to 5% of the population is strongly united against a dictator, their regime may fall.

So, in general, if any significant segment of the population becomes united, they can wield enormous interpersonal power. If they can topple a dictator, they sure as hell can make a celebrity apologize for some random ass thing.

The only thing is, the public is also unlikely to be able to get what they really want from celebrity apologies, which is empathy. When we are wronged by someone, what part of us really craves, is the feeling that this person understands the pain they have caused us. However, like I mentioned earlier, the feeling of being forced to apologize via the means of public power is a deeply humiliating one, and so much so that people subjected to it are nearly always completely focused on their own humiliation. So, their apologies are always unsatisfying; it never feels like they really understood what went wrong, rather they’re just desperately apologizing in an attempt to win public favor back.

Could there be a better approach?

In NVC, instead of apologizing — which implies the existence of power imbalance, and a debt you are hoping to be forgiven of — you express something like regret. You attempt to understand what the emotional experience was, for the other person that was triggered after your behavior, and if it was a deeply negative one, you might say something like “I feel sadness that my behavior triggered those feelings in you. If I had known it was going to land that way, I would not have done that behavior.”

If you’re interested with more on this topic, you can read this transcription of a workshop by Marshall Rosenberg where he dives into topics of anger and domination, and alludes to how forgiveness functions as part of our system of domination.

But, it seems like, perhaps we would do better if we encouraged a sort of empathetic understanding when someone “hurts” a person or group of people? At this point, unsatisfying apologies that are devoid of empathy don’t seem to be doing anything to heal the initial hurt, and then additionally can cause further power struggles as some people wish to “forgive” the “debt” incurred, while others view the “debt” as “unforgivable.” It is that last part, by the way, that really worries me; because we are validating the coercion of behavior by power as part of our culture, and it allows for bad actors to attempt to deepen their power by withholding forgiveness.

For example, Tucker Carlson was (initially) unwilling to accept Ted Cruz’s apology about calling the Jan 6th insurrection a violent terrorist attack, and this was almost certainly due to Carlson’s desire to increase his own personal power. Although the desire for apology can come from a legitimate and necessary place, it is also a frequently used tool of manipulation and coercion. If we were to change the tone of “apology” — to move away from “seeking forgiveness” and to move toward “seeking empathy” — I believe we would both be helping the victims get what they need for healing, and be undercutting a frequently misused autocratic tool.

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