Raise your hand if you will join with family to celebrate a holiday sometime this month.
If only all such gatherings could be harmonious!
In consideration of the fact that even in this season of hope and light old and new grievances are likely to touch the lives of many of us, I would like to say a few words about two phenomena whose manifestations in popular culture have become unmoored in recent decades from their classical meanings: apology and forgiveness.
Since I cannot claim to be an expert in either etymology or semantics, I would like to base my definition of “apology” upon common sense.
I think an apology ought to be a genuine and heartfelt statement of remorse for a specific action expressed directly by the individual offending party to the injured party.
The following are not apologies.
“I’m sorry if you were offended.”
This is not a statement of remorse for one’s behavior. It is at best a statement of regret about the injured party’s sensitivity.
“I’m sorry if you were hurt by anything I did.”
This is too general to be an expression of genuine remorse for a specific bad act.
Also, an apology ought to begin with “I’m sorry that…” – which is an acknowledgement of wrongdoing – rather than, “I’m sorry if…” – which is a dodge.
“I’m sorry that you see things that way.”
This is at best a backhanded swipe at the injured party’s point of view.
“I’m sorry for that bad thing that somebody else did.”
Person A cannot apologize for the actions of Person B, because Person A is not responsible for Person B’s decisions.
Such a perversion of apology, the likes of which politicians are known to indulge in from time to time, is a meretricious act of self-aggrandizement and hubris.
Person A can express regret – along the lines of, “It’s too bad that Person B did that bad thing.” One can legitimately apologize, though, for only those acts for which one is personally responsible.
“We’re sorry for this bad stuff that the group of us did.”
I do not believe in collective responsibility or collective guilt. Each individual – even each individual in a large body of wrongdoers such as Nazi Germany – bears responsibility for only his or her own acts (or failures to act).
Ideally, an apology is conducted person to person – face to face, by phone, or via written word – in a form such as this.
“I am sorry that I did X. It was wrong, and I regret having done it.”
An expression of contrition cannot undo the wrong, but it is a necessary step toward remediation.
What is forgiveness? I see it as the clearing of a debt.
To me, “I forgive you,” means, “I release you from any obligation to make further restitution to me for your wrongdoing, and I commit the memory of that wrongdoing to the archives of history, where after sufficient time has passed it will probably be forgotten.”
Note my use of the phrase, “further restitution.” It makes no sense to me to forgive someone who has never expressed remorse for wrongdoing and never attempted to make amends.
As I see it, forgiveness requires that the offender acknowledge wrongdoing, express contrition, and make restitution. Only after completion of these three steps is forgiveness healthy, or even practically possible.
“Wait!” you might say, “What if an apology isn’t forthcoming? What if apology and restitution are impossible? Do you contend that in such a case the injured party should nurture his or her grievances in perpetuity, effectively prolonging and exacerbating the injury, rather than issuing forgiveness unbidden?”
I would never suggest that an injured party do anything to compound his or her injury.
I am very much in favor of letting go of grievances – i.e., refusing to allocate to grievances space in one’s psyche.
But one cannot forgive someone who has not acknowledged wrongdoing or asked to be forgiven. To do so would indeed compound one’s suffering, because of the implicit lie.
Contemporary Western culture tends to pervert the concept of apology and to pressure the aggrieved individual to “forgive” in the absence of legitimate apology and restitution. It seems to me that recent semantic changes serve to deprive individuals of personal responsibility and autonomy.
Life is so much easier – and much more fun – when things make sense.
Quote for Today
A vocabulary of truth and simplicity will be of service throughout your life. – Winston Churchill
This is the third in a series of posts on seasonal philosophical themes. My first post in the series was ‘Giving “Giving Back” Back to the Propagandists of Newspeak.’ The second was, ‘“Paying it Forward” is a Logical Impossibility.‘