This is serious business, but it may not seem that way at first.
It has been 50 years since I graduated high school (New Trier East), and I am fortunate to still have some friends from those days.
Bob Elisberg is a screenwriter in Los Angeles. He has a blog and writes about me sometimes, always telling me about it afterward. I serve on his board as executive vice-president of telecommunications, which means we talk on the phone.
Nell Minow lives nearby me. If you like movies, you know her as “The Movie Mom.” If you work in corporate governance, you know her as an attorney so smart it is scary. As Bob said about her, the seven words no CEO ever wants to hear are, “I have Nell Minow on line two.” Bob writes about a lot of his pals.
In their spare time, Bob and Nell formed the International Society for the Study of Apologies. No, it is not a real thing, just some musings on whether the apologies by people who have behaved badly are really apologies.
Generally, when someone begins an apology with, “If I offended anyone …” or “It was never my intention …,” they are offering an explanation or an excuse, not an effective or genuine expression of contrition. Same thing if after, “I’m sorry” comes the word, “but.”
It is pretty easy to apologize if you are genuinely sorry. You acknowledge your culpability, declare your remorse, offer to restore the injury if possible and ask for forgiveness. It helps also to vow not to repeat the offending behavior. Then, you are finished!
In Jewish tradition, you might have to repeat the cycle twice more if the injured party withholds forgiveness, but after that you have officially done your best.
Where the ISSA does its work is that fertile field where vagaries and deflections are sown. Public apologies, in particular, are often designed to allow the offending party to save face and establish plausible deniability. Both things diminish the integrity of an apology.
The apologizer ought to be shame-faced and relinquish the notion that there was nothing they could have done otherwise. When a person who has behaved wrongly tries to dance around the flat-out expression of regret, it is almost always because they have forgotten how easy it was for them to see through similar evasions by others.
However mild your prurience is, you are hoping I will share an example or two of public figures who have issued apologies that are not apologies. Sorry. You can Google that – or visit Bob’s blog where you will find many dissections of failures and a few examples of genuinely great repentances.
My purpose here is to inspire you to consider the very wise words of journalist Jemele Hill. She is a woman who knows how to apologize. She flippantly made a Hitler joke on national television some years ago and then, having realized how awful her momentary judgment had been, owned it and learned from it.
I know she learned from it because she called herself out again when she reacted to an antisemitic expectoration from another public figure. That individual offered a textbook example of the fodder for the ISSA and was then offended when the “apology” was criticized. That’s when her column concluded, “Just because he says he is sorry doesn’t mean they have to believe him.”
Therein is the cautionary tale for us all. The purpose of an apology is to set things right with an injured party, not to soothe the offender’s ego. It means being vulnerable and at the mercy of the victim of your actions, at least for a moment or two.
For those who fear even the appearance of weakness, it feels like too high a price. But in the end, it is only true forgiveness that takes away the debilitating pain of guilt.
And most people – especially those accomplished at avoiding apologies – can tell when somebody is just sayin’ but not believin’.