The Corruption of Apology
Asking for forgiveness is meant to be a process of reconciliation. But when coerced, it can sow bitterness and discord.
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Apology was once a cornerstone of our everyday moral practice, helping us to make amends and reconcile with those whom we have wronged. Its value lay in its sincerity, not in any precise formulation.
But today’s public practice of scripted apologies looks very different. These days, universities and corporations compel robotic confessions from students and employees who give offense just to avoid a lawsuit or bad PR. They want to save their skins by stifling scandal. But Twitter mobs are not sated by performative groveling or even sincere apologies.
Apology 2.0 looks little like the old-fashioned apology 1.0 that we have long strived for. It cares nothing about sincerity and carries no hope of forgiveness. The bastardized version threatens free thought, the possibility of redemption, and the integrity of the real thing.
True apologies are precious. They’re a secular process of remediation, drawing on moral intuitions shared by many religious traditions. They encourage membership in one’s moral community because they are fundamentally relational: They heal the bond between wrongdoer and wronged. By temporarily humbling the perpetrator and vindicating the victim, they pave the way for both sides to make up.
Apologies presuppose that there is some sort of moral community that shares a sense of right and wrong to which both the wronged and the wrongdoer belong. By apologizing, the wrongdoer embraces the norm that he violated. By doing that personally, ideally face to face, he works to heal his wounded relationships. And so he invites his victims to forgive, release their resentment, and move on.
We all depend on apologies and forgiveness to go on living with one another. Husbands and wives admit their faults and patch up their differences. Kids on playgrounds say they’re sorry and then get back to recess. Coworkers talk through misunderstandings. As Hannah Arendt argued in The Human Condition, we wrong one another every day, and we learn to forgive constantly so that we can start afresh. The alternative is trapping ourselves in endless cycles of vengeance.
These days, apologies are in great demand, but they don’t function as we want them to. Consider the example of the Palestinian immigrant Majdi Wadi, who was living the American Dream, building an empire of restaurants as well as a bakery, grocery store, and hummus factory. His Holy Land brand of hummus was sold widely. But activists discovered that his daughter had posted offensive tweets years earlier, as a teenager, and demanded an apology. She apologized; he fired her; he even apologized himself. Yet the apologies didn’t matter. His company was boycotted, evicted from a location, and lost millions in contracts.
The instinct to apologize is laudable: When in doubt, be humble and make amends. But real apologies grow out of the fertile soil of relationship and community. Today’s demands for apology, though, are dangerous. They debase the coinage of apology, masquerading as the real thing. Far from healing, they can sow bitterness and discord. And they usually lack the three conditions needed for apologies to succeed.
First, there is sometimes no agreed-upon wrong, but rather a contested norm. Americans disagree widely about politics, protests, and pronouns. For instance, some laud critical race theory, while others denounce it as divisive. That open disagreement is healthy, a staple of our First Amendment culture. It’s how diverse people differ civilly without descending into civil war. Yet, by taking offense and demanding an apology, one side in a culture battle seeks to lay down a marker of membership in its tribe. That intolerance of disagreement is poles apart from protesting a violation of a settled standard.
Second, the wrong is usually not personal to the masses who demand an apology and seek to punish. For example, comedian Kevin Hart was told to apologize for old tweets or face losing his gig hosting the 2019 Oscars. He refused and stepped down. Critics demanded this second round of apologies apparently to denounce Hart, not to pave the way to forgiving him. And many of the people who take offense online are anonymous or pseudonymous, not claiming to be targets of the remarks. But if there is no concrete victim who was wronged, then there is no relationship for the wrongdoer to heal and no one with standing to punish the wrongdoer.
And third, there is often no effort to converse with the wrongdoer, let alone speak face to face. Online exchanges are much more like shouting matches. Even perfunctory invitations for “dialogue” often come across as ploys. In this way, Twitter is not a community; it is a mob shrieking things they would never say in person from behind their screens. 280 characters with emojis is no way to commune.
These false apologies are often obviously coerced. And they degrade self-respect. As Douglas Murray put it: “The problem with going along with being told to bend the knee … is that it demoralizes you and it makes you a smaller person inside. You will be demoralized because you will know that you shouldn’t have done that and at some level you will think badly of yourself for having done it. You’ll feel regretful. You’ll feel cowardly.”
True apologies are supposed to bring us together. But the now-common demands for apology tear us apart. They are designed not to reintegrate wrongdoers into the community, as sincere apologies try to do, but to solidify their exile. They are not a path to reconciliation, but a kind of forced confession leading to permanent ostracism.
The answer is not to forswear all apologies. It’s not to brazen it out, like so many of our politicians do. Nor is it to offer faux apologies: “I’m sorry you were offended” is no substitute for “I’m sorry I did something wrong and hurt you.”
When you’ve done something wrong, it’s still important to humbly admit that and make amends. It’s the right thing to do.
But neither should you let the bullies win. Once you muster the courage to say what you think, be brave enough not to back down. Someone may convince or persuade you that you were wrong, but don’t let them bully you into caving in and denying what you still believe. As my hero, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it on being exiled from the Soviet Union, “let us refuse to say what we do not think!” Or as Tom Petty memorably sang, “I’ll stand my ground / And I won’t back down.”
Coerced apology will bring neither you nor your community redemption. Instead, it will encourage the bullies. And if we speak what is in our hearts, without regard to what is on our Twitter feeds, we will be able to look ourselves in the mirror. When someone tries to force you to apologize, without first convincing you that you made a mistake and wronged someone, just say no.
Stephanos Bibas is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.